The Love of a Gay Man

Leopold Allen was Loved

Leopold Allen and Alessandra Ferri in 1988

On the day I was born, my uncle, Leopold, went up and down our block in the South Bronx announcing to the neighbors, and anyone else who would listen, that I had finally arrived. He was as excited about my birth as my parents  or any new parent would have been. That day, my first birthday, set the tone for a relationship that profoundly shaped my life.

My uncle lived with us for most of my childhood and teen years. He brought love and laughter into a home that was often troubled. Telling me stories, cooking my favorite meals, taking me to the ballet or Radio City Music Hall in New York, and teaching me invaluable life lessons—my uncle was my rock. I loved him immensely.

My uncle wasn’t married. As a kid, I felt lucky that he wasn’t because this made it easier for him to live with us. In those days, I suspected that he’d never get married because my uncle was gay. But his being gay was a nonissue in our home. As far back as I can remember, I knew he dated men. When I was growing up, we didn’t discuss his homosexuality but I didn’t get the sense that the topic was being avoided—I sensed that it wasn’t discussed in pretty much the same way we didn’t discuss my parents’ heterosexuality.

At that time, I was a child with no interest in his or my parents’ sex life. I was more concerned about going outside to play with my friends. Because this was such a nonissue, it came as quite a surprise when my mother told me that she believed homosexuality to be a psychological disorder and a moral violation.

We had this conversation after watching a talk show about homosexuality. I was about 10 years old. Up until that time I hadn’t an inkling that my mother held those views. In fact, I don’t think she ever expressed those views again. Nevertheless, watching the talk show, listening to the tone and content of the comments from the audience, and having that conversation with my mother led to an awakening of sorts which heightened my awareness of the extra hardships my uncle faced simply because he was attracted to people of the same sex.

Leopold had a fascinating life, living in Midtown Manhattan and traveling the world with the American Ballet Theater, where he served as a make-up artist to such luminaries as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Cynthia Harvey, Natalia Makarova, and Alessandra Ferri (pictured above in the photo with my uncle). At the same time, his life was made difficult in ways that are unfathomable to heterosexuals—ways that should be unacceptable to any and everyone regardless of sexual preference or religious belief. I won’t go into the litany of abuses he was subjected to over the years except to say that in the extreme they included being beaten and spat upon.

No less painful were the more subtle forms of abuse including ostracization, employment discrimination, and name-calling. In 1987, he was handcuffed and beaten in a back room at the University Hilton Hotel here in Los Angeles by contract security officers. His offense was that he dared to complain about the lack of service he’d received during his stay at the hotel. As a result, we sued the hotel. Through it all he remained a model of dignity. He will always be my hero.

In October 1988, my uncle came down with pneumonia. The doctors told him he had pneumocystis pneumonia. The term was new to us. Not long after we were introduced to it we learned a host of other terms — all opportunistic infections that attack people with compromised immune systems. Sadly we were informed that my uncle was HIV positive with full-blown AIDS. During his illness, I went to his apartment in New York as frequently as possible. On a couple of occasions, I spent the night in his hospital room sleeping in a makeshift bed I fashioned by pulling two chairs together. It was during those nights that I got a profound sense of the unjustness of our marriage laws.

Roosevelt Hospital dedicated an entire floor to patients with AIDS. At night, family members were allowed to stay with patients who were close to death. “Family” was defined as spouses and those related by blood. Anyone else, including life partners, was told to leave when visiting hours were over.

For reasons that probably make fiscal sense, the night shift had fewer nurses but this translated into less care. The lack of nurses often resulted in patients being left for long periods begging for a bedpan, more pain medication, or to have some other fundamental need met. Those with family members present had built-in advocates who could directly assist them or go to the nurses’ station and get the attention the patients could not get on their own.

I don’t mean to suggest that the nurses were in any way negligent. They were not. But they were human and overworked. It was easier for them to delay responding to a patient’s buzzer than to force a complaining family member to wait their turn. I still have vivid memories of hearing men begging or moaning in pain. These were not the sounds you heard during the day when the visitors were around. Sometimes I tried to help some of the patients who didn’t have family. It would have been so much more humane to allow their partners to stay after visiting hours.

For a full year my uncle fought to stay alive but sadly he died on October 27, 1989, with his mother and my mother, who was his caregiver, by his side. It’s been almost twenty years yet I have never stopped missing him and sometimes I still cry.

Several years ago the General Accounting Office released a list of benefits and protections available to heterosexual married couples. These benefits range from federal benefits, such as survivor benefits through Social Security, sick leave to care for an ailing partner, tax breaks, veteran’s benefits and insurance breaks. They also include things like visiting your spouse in the hospital and making medical decisions if your partner isn’t able to.

Following is a short list of legal rights typically taken for granted when you are a heterosexual married couple but historically denied to gays and lesbians:

  1. Status as “next-of-kin” for hospital visits and medical decisions
  2. Right to make a decision about the disposal of loved ones remains
  3. Automatic inheritance in the absence of a will
  4. Social Security
  5. Medicare
  6. Joint parental rights of children
  7. Wrongful death benefits for surviving partner and children
  8. Bereavement or sick leave to care for partner or children
  9. Joint housing for elderly
  10. Medical care for survivors and dependents of certain veterans

Civil Unions protect some of these rights, but not all of them. On May 15, 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that committed gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to equality under the state’s marriage laws. In November 2008, there will be an initiative on the ballot that could reverse the court’s ruling. There are legions who are preparing to do just that. It is time for progressives to stand together and protect the rights of all committed couples irrespective of gender.

sharon-kyle.gifThe issue of “LGBTQ”—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer—rights and marriage equality don’t only affect the gay community. They affect family members and everyone, really—and all of us can do something to bring justice and compassion to this arena.

As one example, my daughter, Deva, helped found a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance while in high school and continued that kind of outreach while at Vassar and Georgetown Law.

As another example, our Neighborhood Church in Pasadena has taken a strong stand on behalf of marriage equality, establishing a “Hate-Free Zone.” (Check out a podcast of Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson’s “Marriage Equality” sermon given on May 18th). We can and should stand together to make equality in marriage a permanent reality for all.
For more on this topic go to:

Human Rights Campaign

Unelected Judges

Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexualtiy: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church

And on a humorous note, Connie Rice Commentary: How to Save Straight Marriage

We can and should stand together to make equality in marriage a permanent reality for all.


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Comments

  1. Richard Schwartz says

    I am an electrical engineer. A long time ago, I worked in a special laboratory with extremely high voltages. Sharon, your picture reminds me of those times!

    As for the gay thing, it must be double trouble if you are not only gay, but have some other “descrepancy”, such as being atheist, communist, a felon, or anything other than a member of the teutonic christian race. I think I suffered rejection from my father when I “came out” as an atheist similar to what a gay person suffers from his family when he comes out. Except that for a gay person it is probably much worse.

    I don’t see eye-to-eye with you on everything, but on the anti-gay proposition, I’ll be voting with you. A rule of freedom is that if you want to be free, you must allow the other guy to be free… even if you don’t approve of everything he does.

  2. McKenna says

    I just stumbled across this article and I was deeply moved by it.

    I’m a lesbian aunt and although my adult nieces love me, they vote against me – and my rights as an American. Their father, my brother, has instilled in them ‘God fearing Republican family values’. I know they love me; they visit often, call, email – we’re very close. But they cannot distinguish the difference between their feelings for me, a lesbian, and their passion to be responsible Republicans.

    I don’t know how anyone can consider marriage a ‘special right’ for gays, of which, my brother has had four. How can I be denied one marriage, when my equally American brother is on his fourth? How is that special, how is that fair? Is divorce a special right too?

    I grew up in California and now live in Colorado. I’m considering moving back ‘home’ where my partner and I can become legally married and live with some dignity and peace. We would have to sacrifice quite a bit to do so: good jobs, a home, great friends… all to be together in peace, in love. Who else in this country must sacrifice so much for marriage? From drive-thru ceremonies in Las Vegas to courthouse weddings – getting married is easier than getting a driver’s license! (If you’re straight, of course)

    It makes me think of the time when interracial relationships were taboo and marriage was illegal. When men and women, black and white, would have to relocate to ‘safe’ states. What happened to being the United States?

    Anyway, I hope my nieces one day realize they are voting against the aunt they claim to love. My brother never will, I’ve accepted this. But my nieces are the future, as are their children – the next generation being raised to vote against equal rights for all American citizens.

    • Richard Schwartz says

      My marriage would have been illegal in California as recently as 1949… simply because my wife is a Chinese import model and I am a different race. (But she sure looks good to me!) That is not fair, and what they do to you is not fair either!

      In their commercials, the proponents of the anti-gay proposition say that “Liberal judges are mandating compulsory gay marriage.” That wording has an echo back to an earlier time when we heard that “Liberal judges are mandating compulsory school integration.” Hmmm… the words sound the same, so I wonder if it might actually be the same people…

      As for my “race” it clearly states the race or color of my parents on my birth certificate. My parents are JEW colored! I am proud not to be “white”. It is probably my greatest achievment, and my parents did it for me!

  3. says

    wOW. During that same year, I was watching my best friend die from AIDS at St. Vincent’s. Thank you (belatedly) for sharing this beautiful, heartfelt story. Your Uncle Leopold sounds like an amazing guy. I wish that this nation had done better by him. And I pray that people hear you and vote NO on 8. No one is equal until we all are.

    • Sharon Kyle says

      NR,

      Roosevelt Hospital is also called St.Vincent’s. It’s at 10th ave and 59th Street in Manhattan. The late 80s and early 90s were very bad times. I don’t know a single person in New York City who was not touched by the loss of someone to AIDS. I’m sorry to hear of you loss. I truly believe that a contributing factor that lead to the spread of AIDS is the way our society accepts the poor treatment of members of the LGBT community.

      Sharon

  4. Grady says

    Dear Sharon,
    Thank you for writing such a wonderful, touching article and for sharing it. He was lucky to have you as his neice. I also appreciate you being such a strong advocate for this issue. I continue to be amazed by the folks at Neighborhood who really walk the talk.
    Grady

    • Sharon Kyle says

      Grady,

      You too have been willing to share and expose vulnerable parts of yourself. I don’t remember if I told you how touched I was when you shared with the church last year. It was powerful.

      Sharon

  5. Erin says

    Sharon –

    What a beautiful article. Thank you for telling your uncle’s story to your readers. And thank you for being such a wonderful straight ally. I am currently planning my wedding (our minister Jim will officiate, of course!), but spending more time working against the initiative in CA this fall than planning the wedding. Thank you for all you do.

    Erin

  6. Cap Capeloto says

    Tears are streaming down my face. I cannot tell you how moved I was by this account of your life with your uncle. Thank you for sharing. God bless you!

    • says

      Cap,

      I have no way of knowing if your tears are tears of healing or tears of pain or both. Please know that writing this put me and (I hope others) on a healing path.

      I’ve been very angry for too many years. My uncle would not have wanted that for me. I hope your tears give you some relief.

      Sharon

    • says

      Thank you Marilyn,

      Dick and I appreciate when our articles are sent to others by people who’ve read them and think they have value.

      Whenever I write something that comes from my heart, I have a hard time sleeping the night before we distribute the article because I’m so unsure of how it will be received.

      A few months ago I wrote a piece about my personal experience of forced busing. I was apprehensive about the responses I would get. After the article was out for several hours, I had gotten so many loving, beautiful, responses that I had to close my office door because I could no longer control my tears — tears that were the byproduct of knowing I am not alone.

      The piece about my uncle and the time in our lives it cause me to return to, was hard. My uncle left me so many fabulous, humurous, zany, wonderful memories that I have been able to avoid returning to the memories of the last year of his life which was not any of those things.

      I needed to remember that year and you, and the other wonderful responders like Rick Galant, sent me words that worked like a medicinal salve to help soothe the pain of a wound in my heart.

      By the way, my uncle was only 43 yrs old when he left us.

      Thank you. You’ve helped me and others move forward in our healing. I hope my mother is reading this. She was and is an angel who ushered her little brother to the next phase with grace and honor.

      Much thanks,

      Sharon

  7. June R. Stratton says

    Thank you for this beautiful and moving account about your uncle. We need to continue to remind the world that when we mistreat any one or any group we do great harm to ourselves.

    • Sharon Kyle says

      June,

      This was the first time I have ever written and published anything about my uncle. For most of the last 20 years it’s been difficult for me to talk or write about his last year of life.

      Thank you for reading and responding. Your gracious words are so appreciated.

      Dick and I started doing newsletters and now this website because we felt the need to become active to counter what the radical right is doing to our country. I never dreamed I’d connect with so many beautiful people along the way.

      Thank you again.

      Yours, in solidarity with the human race,

      Sharon

  8. Dee says

    What a compelling account of your uncle’s experience. It is gratifying to know that he had your love throughout his life, even to the end, and you knew his love for you from your childhood on. Please keep his memory alive by continuing to let the world know that we cannot continue to mistreat one group of citizens so unfairly.

    • Sharon Kyle says

      Dee,

      When my uncle passed, I was grateful for the wonderful memories he left with me. You are right, I was very fortunate to have had an uncle like Leopold.

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