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:
- Status as “next-of-kin” for hospital visits and medical decisions
- Right to make a decision about the disposal of loved ones remains
- Automatic inheritance in the absence of a will
- Social Security
- Joint parental rights of children
- Wrongful death benefits for surviving partner and children
- Bereavement or sick leave to care for partner or children
- Joint housing for elderly
- 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.
The 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:
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.