As a thank you I offered to talk to the class, show the documentary ALZHEIMER'S: A Love Story, and participate in a Q&A afterwards. Jan also invited students from PRISM, the LGBTQ support group at school; the Social Justice Club; and the Film Makers group. Approximately 50 students were in the audience.
The kids were very well behaved, were visibly moved by the documentary, and asked some profound questions during the Q&A about coming out Gay, how I knew for sure I was gay, dealing with Alzheimer's and loss, etc.
After the session, I stood by the door and shook each student's hand as they were leaving with a short comment of thanks to each one. Several thanked me again. Towards the end of the line a beautiful young man, who during Q&A had said that he admired Gregory and my relationship and didn't think he could be as brave as I had been, asked if he could have a hug! Sweet. This led to several hugs for the last few students, both boys and girls, in line.
What was particularly unbelievable for me was that during my tenure as a teacher, I didn't dare to talk about my being Gay, not even with colleagues in the teacher's lounge. And here I was telling about my coming out as a young man, a brief history of Gay life from the 50's to now, and sharing openly my deep love for another man, Gregory.
To coin the phrase, "Boy we have come along way baby!"
Attached are my presentation comments to the students:
I am pleased to be here and want to thank Ms. Yourist’s advisory for raising money which will go to the MORE THAN EVER EDUCATION FUND administered by La Casa Norte, a not-for-profit supporting youth and families confronting homelessness.
I also want to thank Prism for the work you do in supporting LGBTQ students here at school, to the Social Justice group for your good work as well, and to those of you exploring the making of short films. I want to thank the principal and teachers involved, for being open minded enough to allow this event to take place.
Before we view the documentary, I would like to tell you a little about myself, give a brief history of Gay issues in the United States, and say a little about the disease called Alzheimer’s.
When I was growing up I had few friends, was bullied, and was called queer and faggot. The more gentle term Gay had not yet come into use. Some of my unhappy youth was probably my own fault due to my lack of social skills, some may have been because I was unknowingly gay, for sure a lot of it was because I was different from other students. Also as a kid I had little or no self-confidence.
Growing up, there were no gay role models, no out gay movie stars, no one to tell me that “it gets better,” no internet, no one to talk to about my feelings and fears.
My coming out many years later as a gay man began late in college. The term Gay was just coming into fashion. Role models of older, successful gays began to surface. Homosexuality was not widely discussed or accepted by society in general.
I knew I wanted a friend, someone to love, someone to spend my life with … but didn’t know how to go about it. I had girl friends and was almost engaged to marry. I was quite conflicted.
As an adult, having accepted my homosexuality, there were now gay bars at which to meet other gays, but times were still dark. Even thought I was of age, we always had our eye over our shoulder worrying about the possibility a police raid. Most often these raids were just excuses which allowed the police to harass gay men and women. Homosexuality was still not widely accepted.
I led a double life never talking about my homosexual side at school when I was a teacher, not even in the teacher’s lounge, for fear of being fired if found out, which did happen to some men and women!
The Stonewall Riots took place in June 1969 in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. They are widely considered to constitute the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States.
The rainbow flag was born as a symbol of “Never Again” referring to the bible’s story of God promising Noah, after the 40 days of rain and flood, that he would never again destroy mankind. The Gays used it to signify “Never Again” will I go back into the closet and be harassed just for being who I am.
Being Gay became a “lifestyle” describing the “out visible life” rather than the earlier “closeted hidden life” of the homosexual. This fostered debates about “lifestyle.” Was a person born gay or did a person choose to be gay. But that is a story for a different time.
“Q” has been added to LGBT-Q. In some cases it stands for "Queer" which younger Gays have been taking back to use with pride but more importantly it stands for “Questioning,” meaning that people as they grow up, question their sexuality and on further study, may or may not end up being Gay.
The next milestone in Gay Life is not a pretty one: the beginning of HIV and AIDS. It stared as the ‘Gay Disease” and thousands and thousands of people died of the disease. Social and medical support lagged too far behind mainly because of the stigma of it being a disease affecting gay people because they were different: a man loving a man, a woman loving a woman, a person not identifying with their given physical sexual appearance
Today medical know-how is saving many lives and HIV/AIDS seems to be under control in the more developed nations. Many third world countries continue to struggle with the disease. The statistics, however, show that in the U.S. HIV/AIDS among young people is slowly increasing, perhaps because they are not aware of how insidious the disease is and therefor do not take "safe sex" seriously!
Fast forward to today with many countries allowing marriage of same sex couples recently including the United States. Several states are creating new laws trying to dance dancing around the federal law. The courts will eventually settle this issue. Still a controversial subject.
Another current issue, what should the sign on a bathroom in a public building look like and who may use the room and under what conditions. Also controversial.
That brings me to the story we are here today to share. Gregory and I met in the late 70’s and lived in a committed same sex relationship before it was fashionable, as I alluded to, to talk about such things publicly.
In the 29th year of our relationship, Gregory was diagnosed with some kind of dementia, most likely Alzheimer’s. He was NOT a victim of Alzheimer’s but rather a hero.
He lived as well as possible as the disease progressed and I was able to support him by helping his life to be free of worries, responsibilities, fears, and filled with new activities which compensated for his failing abilities.
Life with Alzheimer's was very difficult, mainly for Gregory but also for me who worked so hard to make Gregory's life safe and comfortable and to watch the man I love so slowly disappear from view. Our life was filled with much laughter and many tears, joy as well as sorrow. And above all, LOVE. The times were not easy, but we persevered.
Alzheimer’s is not just about failing memory, as some people believe. It also affects the thinking process, bodily functions, and day to day activities which you and I take for granted like feeding yourself, going to the bathroom, or for example remembering you need to turn the page to continue reading after you have read to the bottom of that page.
Gregory would forget the difference between a fork, a knife, spoon and how to use them. Think about a fork and how you use it to stab, gather, or scoop your food, then get the food to your mouth keeping the fork at a correct angle so the food doesn’t fall off, get the food into your mouth without stabbing your lip (because you can’t really see the lip,) and chew the food well before swallowing so you don’t choke on it. This is just one example of the breakdown of cognitive abilities that occurs with dementia. Gregory ended up only being comfortable eating with his fingers.
The documentary, ALZHEIMER’S: A Love Story, which you are about to see, was done by the son of Gregory’s college roommate and best friend. Gabe, the son, created this documentary as part of the requirements for one of his college courses in film making.
The message of the documentary, I believe, is a beautiful one, in which Gregory and my 41 year love relationship and Gregory’s 12 years living with Alzheimer’s have been distilled into a moving 15 minute documentary.
I think you will agree that as you experience the story, that the same sex couple issue and the Alzheimer’s issues seem to disappear … and a story of two people who love each other deeply, emerges. A story about the joy as well as sorrow that a strong love, affected by illness, can bring.