Friendship, Gayness, and Death

First published at on November 12, 2010

When I first acknowledged to myself at 19 that I was gay, there were two friends that I needed to tell right away.

I told Scott first. We were fellow candidates with the Capuchin Franciscans, aspiring to be priests. (We continued to affectionately call each other “Brother” even after we had both left the order.) Scott had come out to me a few months before, at a religious retreat.

I told Martin next. Like Scott, he was my age. We were best friends since junior high, and as it turned out, he too was gay—although he would not come out to me for several more years.

Back in 1988, when I came out to people, I would literally tremble. My body shook; my voice quivered.

It didn’t matter (as in Scott’s case) that I knew the listener was himself gay. The problem wasn’t just his image of me—it was my image of myself. Getting the words out was hard enough, but hearing myself say them was even harder: “I’m gay.”

That’s why I shuddered even as I told Scott over the phone. And that’s why his revelation several months earlier had terrified me: it cracked my shell.

Back when Scott came out to me, I informed him nervously that he was still my friend and that his gayness made no difference. But in truth, it made all the difference: his courage loosened the lock on my own closet door.

Indeed, it loosened it enough that I briefly cracked the door open: in response to his revelation, I informed him that I too had “gay feelings,” even though I was definitely, unlike him, “NOT GAY.”

Scott was one of the most humane and perceptive people I’ve ever known, and I’m sure he saw through my mental contortions. But he didn’t push. He came out at his own pace, and he let me come out at mine.

I had also previously intimated my “gay feelings” to Martin. Back in high school, on the morning following my senior prom, I rushed to him to sort through my conflicting emotions. I simply couldn’t understand why my NOT GAY self, who had just made out with a woman for the first (and ultimately only) time, felt so completely wrong doing so.

Martin offered me his usual calm reassurance, both then and at my later, fuller coming out. Even though he was surely struggling with his own sexuality, he put me at ease. “Buddy,” he told me, “it’s going to be okay.” And so it was.

Those moments happened half of my life ago—a fragile, crucially formative period. The effects remain with me daily—both the scars and the strength. Whenever the terrified 19-year-old within me starts to tremble, I see Scott’s kind eyes. Whenever my adolescent inner voice quivers, I hear Martin’s comforting response. Their strength continues to fortify me, and I’m grateful.

Martin and Scott have both died in the last three months.

Because their deaths occurred amidst a wave of gay teen suicides, I’ve been dwelling all the more on mortality, identity, and the value of friendship.

Of course, Martin and Scott were 41—not teenagers, but still much too young to die. And their deaths weren’t suicides: Martin died of an aggressive cancer; Scott, of kidney failure and hypoxemia (an oxygen deficiency in the blood).

But since my most vivid memories of them are from our college years—the last time we were in frequent contact—losing them feels like losing teenage best friends: sudden, brutal and senseless.

And so I want to dedicate this column to expressing my gratitude for them. It’s a debt that, sadly, I can only pay forward.

Rest in peace, Buddy. Rest in peace, Brother.