It was 1982 – the week before Christmas – and I had just gotten my hair cut. I was in the 9th grade and had to depend on my stepfather Karl for rides downtown. He was notoriously unreliable. In fact, I ended up having my braces on a year or two longer than planned because he would forget to drive me to the orthodontist. I eventually gave up and just stopped going. My senior year they finally took them off out of pity, whereas I promptly lost my retainer a few weeks later on the drive to college, and my teeth moved right back to where they started.
This December night we were close to home when Karl realized he had forgotten to get something at the store. As we turned around Karl pulled over to allow an ambulance to pass by. I said, “I hope it’s not anyone we know.”
Winter in New England can be a wondrous time. Snow, frozen ponds for ice skating, sledding, snowball fights. But there is always that dark and dreary in-between time, before the first snow. All of the leaves have fallen, leaving the large gray skeletons of ancient trees. The grass in all the finely manicured yards is dead – killed off in November by the freezing temperatures.
That night, as we drove up to our house I saw the red flashing lights and I held my breath. Was it in front of our house or the neighbors? I couldn’t tell because it was parked right in between the two. There was a gang of people gathered at the back of the ambulance. I got out of the car and peered through the crowd. On the stretcher I saw dark blue jeans and white socks and not much more. Then someone said they had found someone shot behind the neighbor’s house. In the next few seconds I eagerly created a story in my mind: some poor homeless person had met his demise in the woods behind the house. Probably a drug deal gone bad. I actually felt relieved!
I saw my mother coming toward me from next door. She marched up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and asked me if I knew what happened. I told her my version. She bit her lip and gripped me harder, never taking her eyes off my face. “Brad, be strong.” Everything slowed down. It had just gotten dark and the bare trees and nearby houses were being lit up with the rhythmic pulsing of the red and blue lights. “Kenny shot himself.”
Kenny was our next door neighbor – the oldest of three boys – and my brother’s best friend. He was 6 or so years older than me, and I had a crush on him. I didn’t know it was a crush, really; I just liked being around him. His mom was my piano teacher, and Kenny would compliment my playing. He always talked to me like I was his equal, not like the awkward little kid I really was.
The day my brother went off to college, Kenny came a bit unglued. He took issue with the way we were packing the car, ranting and raving about how unsafe it was, and that if we got into an accident someone would surely be killed. It took me years to realize that he was in love with my brother. I drove back alone with him from campus that night. He drove recklessly in the heavy rain and we hydroplaned several times. He cursed at the bald tires but never really slowed down.
As my mom tried to shoo me back into our house the night he shot himself, something took hold of me. I refused. She ordered me. She then begged and pleaded. I told her I had to go and be with Kenny’s mom. I found her sitting on a couch in her basement, rocking back and forth. I sat down next to her and took her hands. They were purple and I feared she was having a heart attack before I realized it was really just Kenny’s dried blood. She asked me “why,why,why” over and over . We cried and held each other for an hour or so, until someone came to take her to the hospital.
After she left I decided I didn’t want the family to come home and see any blood. I called the police and asked them what I should do about it. They said, “Clean it up.” I often wonder if they knew they were taking to a 15 year old.
His parents had heard the gunshot and ran out back. His mom cradled his bleeding head in her arms as his frantic dad, covered in blood, ran inside and called for an ambulance. I wiped his bloody fingerprints off the phone, and cleaned up the rest of the house.
People were still gathered outside when I got the hose and started to wash the blood out of the yard. It was mercifully above freezing that night. Several adults tried to then take over, and I refused. Something in my eyes made them leave me alone, I think. It took so long for the water to run clear that I wore away a large patch of grass. I then went inside and called my brother at college.
In the ensuing years, I would myself go through some very dark times. And when it got so bad I thought I couldn’t live one more day with the pain and torment of being in the closet and of despising myself for being gay, I remembered that December night in the back yard. I remembered what it was like to hold Kenny’s mom. I remembered what it was like to wash his blood away. I remembered what it was like to call my brother and tell him his best friend was dead. And so I hung on for dear life. Because of Kenny’s death I was able to see through my pain and imagine the consequences of ending my own life. And, after 25 years, that is the only way I have been able to find any meaning or solace from such soul-numbing loss.
The rash of gay teen suicides in the news has brought this all back to the surface for me. I have been so moved by the It Gets Better Project, and applaud every single person who has taken the time to make a video. They are wicked powerful. I especially like this one. And this one.
I wanted to remind everyone that the entire DADT issue is predicated on the false belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with us – that we have some inherent flaw that makes us unfit for duty. THAT is the twisted reasoning behind the false arguments of “unit cohesion” and what not. Every day that DADT remains in place is another reminder to LGBTQ youth that society says there’s something wrong with them. It says, “No matter how good you are, you’re not good enough. You are not worthy.”
We categorically reject this assertion, and point to the tens of thousands of LGBTQ troops currently serving. THEY show us it’s their skills that got them where they are. THEY show us that who they love has no bearing on their abilities as soldiers. THEY show us this every single day they show up for duty in spite of this discriminatory ban.
To the LGBTQ youth out there that are struggling, I say this: It gets better. Love can’t be stopped or legislated away, and you will find a way to be the real you – even if it that means following your dream to become an airman, soldier, sailor, marine or coast guardsman. We’re gonna fix that part of it for you. I promise.
To those who oppose lifting the ban, I say this: You don’t like gay people – we get it. There are lots of people who don’t like black people and Mexicans and Jews, too. Hide behind whatever false arguments you want, but you’re still just a bigot. There’s nothing wrong with us, and your days of telling us what we can or can’t do are coming to an end.