Since today is the day that the United States Supreme Court is hearing argument in the case of California's Proposition 8, I figured it was just as good a time as any to tell this story.
I am a flaming liberal, an unflinching ally of the LGBT community, and will forever be so.
I've had friends I knew were gay since we were small children. I have friends who came out in the hormonal, emotional years of adolescence. I have friends who came out in college, to rooms full of people who embraced them for what we already knew. I have friends who stifled their orientation because society told them it was the right thing to do, who married and had kids with partners of the opposite sex because it was what they were supposed to do, only to come to terms with their identity years later. I have friends who stayed in the closet until they were grandparents.
I have friends who are still afraid to come out.
Being gay in a society like ours isn't easy, not when there are sizable percentages of the population that proclaim that you are a sinner and flawed and broken, or that maybe if you just prayed harder God would fix you. Our society is one where kids are tied to fences and left to die because of their orientation. Where thousands of parents put placards into the hands of their children and stand them on street corners. Where the funerals of fallen soldiers are a platform for hatred.
It's not just those people over there that spew hatred and intolerance. It's not just those people who refuse to have compassion and love in their souls. It's not just those people who refuse to heed the teachings of the very man they claim to follow, Jesus...you know the ones where you are supposed to love your neighbor as yourself, all that.
It's far more people than you'd realize. People you know. People I know.
People like the family of the man I helped all those years ago.
This is his story.
*names will be changed because this story is real, and was from a time in my life when I was working in a legal capacity with clients*
While I was in law school, I worked with a legal aid group. My area of focus was the AIDS clinic, and to qualify for our free services, clients had to be HIV+/AIDS patients, and have income levels below a designated point. Unlike the other clinics, ours had a broad range of legal issues because we were serving a population, not a specific need per se.
I worked on debtor relief, I helped with Social Security Disability appeals, I helped resolve a lot of landlord/tenant disputes. I wrote wills and advance directives. I wrote a lot of wills and advance directives.
Back then, the cocktails of drugs to combat the disease were just coming into common usage. More and more of our clients were surviving, which meant that they'd often have a new set of legal challenges. If they'd spent their life savings thinking they were dying, then run up credit cards, they had to pay the piper when they got better. If they had to stop working when they were too sick to do so, but were well enough now, they had to contend with being out of the marketplace for however long they were gone.
Even with the advances in medicine, every week or so, the phone would ring. Someone else would be gone.
The youngest client I lost was a 23 year old man. I held his hand the day he died, when I brought his will to the hospital for him to sign. He literally had nothing to his name, but he wanted to make sure he'd done all he could to make this easier on his family.
The family that disowned him when he came out.
That happened a lot, to far too many of my clients. The very people who brought them into this world rejected them because of who they were.
There is one client that hangs on to a bigger piece of my heart than the rest, though.
I first met John when he came into one of our satellite clinics. I didn't work at those very often, spending more time in the office. He was shy and nervous, unsure of what he was really there for. He was HIV+, but in relatively good health so far. He was starting to worry about seeing his friends dying, starting to worry about tying up loose ends, starting to worry about taking care of things.
He, like most of my clients, didn't have anything to his name.
Even still, he wanted a will. He wanted the medical paperwork all filled out.
In the process of interviewing him for all that, I had to ask questions about who he wanted to make health care decisions in the event he became unable.
He grew silent. The tears welled up in his eyes, and I realized quickly why. His family, like too many of the rest of them, had disowned him. He had friends, yes, but most of them were sick too. He had tried and tried to repair the relationship with his father especially for years, and been met time and again with rejection.
He was disgusting. He brought shame to the family. He was a freak. He was a sinner and he was going to hell. HIV was his punishment, and he deserved it.
This grown man sat across a table from me and cried. And cried. I did my best to console him, knowing that there was a hole in his heart too big for anyone else to fix.
He said something about wishing that he could just disown them too. That since they wanted nothing to do with him, that he could start over as someone else. That it was torturing him to carry around the name of a family that hated and rejected him.
I smiled. I said that I was pretty sure we could do that. He asked if I was serious, and I assured him that I was.
Though I'd never worked on one before, we got the ball rolling that day. I drafted his will and medical paperwork too, knowing that I would have to do it all over in a few months, but knowing that it would all be worth it.
He legally changed his name.
The hearings for adult name changes are simple enough. You just need to give public notice, and almost no one ever shows up to contest them. His wasn't contested.
The day he walked into my office after the hearing, he was smiling ear to ear.
He had spent his entire adult life feeling like he wasn't good enough for them, and now he didn't have to anymore.
He was his own man.
I saw him once more when we signed his amended paperwork a few weeks later, then never saw him again. Before he left that last time, he thanked me for changing his life.
Still, after all these years, he is my favorite client. It was the easiest motion to file, but the best one.
I knew from that day forward that I would fight for the men and women like him, no matter who disagreed with me, no matter who hid behind the Bible, no matter who tried to tell me I was wrong.
So, today I stand here, united with my brothers and sisters.
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