It’s June and people are celebrating Gay Pride across the world.
This weekend is the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, which many point to as the birth of the Gay Rights movement.
Today, I want to celebrate Ray
It was the early 80s and I was maybe 9 or 10. We had a next-door neighbor named Ray who was probably around 17 or 18 at the time.
Ray was gay.
I didn’t know what being gay meant. I knew Ray loved music — Donna Summers and Diana Ross. He shared his albums with me. He performed in the school theatre and acted out A Chorus Line for us in the backyard. He threw parties in his basement and he loved art. Ray encouraged my brother with his creativity. I also knew that my older brothers and their friends made comments under their breath, innuendos, made fun and although I didn’t understand I somehow knew I could make fun of Ray too.
We were on a bus trip, for church, I think. I sat near the back of the bus with a friend who liked to test limits and encouraged me to so as well. I was happy to follow her lead. Ray sat in the last row of the bus with his friends. Our parents sat at the front. Even though we were kids somehow my friend and I spent half of the ride home teasing and taunting Ray and getting away with it. We said things like “Ray, are you g—?” We’d say enough of that first letter, then duck down into the bus seat and giggle. We must have used variations of this rhyme again and again thinking we were so funny and clever.
Ray was upset, embarrassed. Two little girls humiliated him in front of his friends and he did nothing but contain himself for the remainder of the trip. When we got off the bus at the church parking lot he grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me behind some cars. His anger and hurt poured from him as he told me what he really thought and how he expected more from me. I tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let me go until he was finished letting me have it … and I deserved every word he spat at me!
I’ve thought of my deplorable behavior that day often and regretted it ever since.
We never spoke of that moment again. Ray and I went back to our usual interactions. The years passed, he moved away and I went off to college.
It didn’t take long for me to begin to realize who I was and to express myself. I came home after my first semester with pins all over my jean jacket — pink triangles, ‘Silence = Death,’ two women symbols side by side, ‘Question Everything,’ peace signs and more.
Ray was home too when I went next door to say hi. I wanted to talk to him, wanted to tell him what I had realized about myself, wanted to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but I didn’t have the courage yet. He asked about college and commented on the buttons but I kept the conversation superficial,
“College is good.”
“Yep, I’m learning a lot.”
“Good to see you too, bye.”
By then it was the late 80’s — the AIDS epidemic, fear, homophobia — coming out wasn’t as easy as it might be now. There were very few gay role models. As I struggled with my own identity and trying to figure out how to or if I should come out, Ray was dying of AIDS.
He passed away.
I never did apologize.
I never came out to Ray or told him what he meant to me. He was a role model. He lived his life, out and proud, no matter what others said or did, no matter how difficult. He was ahead of the rest of us and if he were here, I know he’d be happy to see how far we’ve come.
So this year, during Gay pride month, I wanted to write about Ray. I wanted to acknowledge how wrong I was, to apologize. I know I was a kid, but I still think it’s important to say it. And even more important I wanted to say, yes Ray was gay and he was Carlos and Margarita’s son, Edwin’s brother, he was our neighbor and a friend. He was a good person who died much too young. And he will never be forgotten!