Orlando and My First Gay Friend
Jay, born Jacob, was my first gay friend. We met soon after my divorce and his relationship breakup We were both rudderless as we navigated our personal storms. While displaced from the coupled world and uncomfortable in the single world, we found our friendship to be the perfect solution.
With a wine glass in hand, we shared our stories, our heartache and our loneliness. Sometimes we went to the movies together. Sometimes, we sat in front of the television set and watched the early episodes of Seinfeld laughing all the way to the O’Henry ending. On quiet nights, he would call me out of the blue, “So what are you doing tonight? Can I come over?” He had an uncanny intuitiveness about my well-being. Before I succumbed to tears or melancholy, he would lift me up with foolishness.
There were no pretenses between us. Jay allowed me to be me and I honored him without judgment. After a few days, when I didn't hear from him, I went to his house and found him alone and drinking. I would literally pull him out of his apartment and into the all too quiet streets of Greensboro, North Carolina. We rode around in his car looking for any open restaurants. Mostly, we just rode around.
Jay had been adopted by a Jewish couple who wanted children desperately. He talked about his absent mother who had succumbed to dementia and was living in a nursing home. His elderly father continued to provide him with love and money even after he discovered Jay's unconventional ways. Jay had family, but he always felt like an outsider. In the 1980’s coming out as a gay man was still dangerous, especially in the South.
One day he drove his car into a tree and killed himself.
I was shocked to learn that his new boyfriend had been diagnosed with AIDS and Jay was fearful for his own future suffering and possible death. That is when he took his life and death into his own hands and wheeled himself to a new safety.
He lost his life and I lost my best friend, confidante, buddy, soulmate.
When I cried late into the night, I heard his happy-go-lucky voice call to me, “So what are you doing tonight?”
My consolation came months later when I was asked to join a committee of clergy to create a daytime halfway house for AIDS afflicted people. I quickly agreed to serve. I wanted to honor Jay’s memory by providing a place of comfort and caring for those who were diagnosed with HIV. In constant limbo, the gay community waited for a cure.
Thirty five years ago when the epidemic began, HIV infection meant a rapid death sentence. Today thanks to sophisticated anti-retrovirals, it’s become a chronic illness that people can live with for decades. A cure is in the making.
When I learned about the Orlando tragedy, Jay’s spirit came into my heart space. Jay would have loved the PULSE club and the freedom to dance in the company of his fellow gay men. Undoubtedly, we would have cried together watching the unfolding scenario on the streets of Orlando.
I miss him still. Especially at night, when fears bubble up and pain pulses through me.
Rabbi Tamara Miller