Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving

Usually, I write my posts the night before and schedule them for in the morning.  Trust me I am not punctual enough to post at the same time every morning. I sometimes sleep late, but last night I was sleepy and decided that this would be a post that I would actually write on Thanksgiving morning.

I have so much to be thankful for this year. I won't list everyone, because most of it would be repeating what I've already said in previous posts, but you can go back and read posts like "I Love My Job" or yesterday's "Vermont v. Alabama."  There are of course others that I've talked about being happy and loving my new life. Six months ago, I'd have never believed that this life would be possible.  I certainly wouldn't have believed anyone saying that I'd be living in Vermont.

While I a, very grateful for the big stuff, there are little things too. Take for instance the fact that I can sit on my bed naked and type this post up without worrying if someone will walk in. It's one of the things I love about living alone, which is something that I'm grateful for because it allows me certain freedoms I lacked before.  If I want to get on Grindr in the middle of the night and bring a guy here or go to his place, I can do so without any explanation.  I can run and do errands at any time without worrying about anyone else. I can watch what I want on TV. Yes, those are mostly small things, but it's a freedom I haven't had in years.

So I am very thankful for my new life: a new job, a new home, a new location, etc. Nearly everything about this experience is new, but it's wonderful. I'm loving every minute of it.  Now, I need to get up and put on some clothes so I can cook a couple of dishes to take to my coworker's house for Thanksgiving lunch.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Vermont v. Alabama

I received the following comment on my Saturday Moment of Zen post:
Joe, you have now been in Vermont for a month. What about a post on the differences in the aspects of living in the Deep South and living in Deepest New England? Your comments would be very interesting. Your last post touched on accent and way of speech but what else - not just material things, such as food and the time difference, but the way people behave and think?
--The Academic 
The first thing I had to get used to, especially when driving around, is that I am in the mountains.   Where I live is about 750 feet above sea level. Alabama's highest peak is 1445 ft, whereas where I grew up was about 400 feet above sea level but so was everything else (In other words, it was relatively flat). The mountain that I am closest to, and is part of the university's campus is 2382 feet. To get anywhere, you seem to have to go over or around mountains, so while a nearby town may only be 10 miles away, it takes roughly 20-30 minutes. That being said, I am not complaining.  The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, I just have to get used to the very steep hills, especially when they are covered in ice and snow during the winter. Also, while other towns are 20-30 minutes away, I was already used to that where I lived in rural Alabama.  The exception being that here I actually live in a small town which has some of the conveniences you'd expect in a small town. An added bonus is that I live less than a mile from work, whereas in Alabama, I lived 40 miles from work.

Similar to where I was in Alabama, the young guys still drive trucks that are far too loud, and they race up and down the streets in Vermont just like in Alabama.  That is one of the things that struck me as very similar to back home. There are a lot of similarities between Alabama and Vermont, as both are rural states. There are churches everywhere, but the ones up here are more accepting of gay people.  Sadly though, there are no churches of Christ that I can find. Yes, there are United Churches of Christ, but that's a totally different animal. It looks like I might be going to a Lutheran church with my boss, at least they celebrate communion each Sunday. 

Besides the churches, everyone seems to know everyone else.  When I went in the pharmacy the first time and explained that I had out-of-state prescriptions, they knew exactly who I was and all about me by the time I returned that afternoon to pick my prescriptions up.  It seems that the wife of the university president works there. I've lived here a month and already people in the stores and post office know me.  That's a nice feeling. Whereas the same could be said about Alabama, in Vermont the people are genuinely friendly, not the fake friendly that many people are in Alabama.  When someone sees you, they are actually happy to see you, not just being nosy trying to figure out what you are doing and what gossip they can either get from you or make up about you. I am stereotyping badly here, but there is a certain truths in it.

As for food, there are a few differences, like "bombs," which is a hot sandwich that comes on a roll that is halfway between a hot dog bun and a hoagie roll and is usually filled with a meat and a cheese.  They are quite yummy.  Also, when they say "greens," in Alabama, it meant collards or turnips, here it means kale. They put kale on everything up here. I am surprised that I can find a lot of foods familiar to home in the grocery stores here. I don't think I've seen grits, though they do have polenta, but I have seen corn meal. Surprisingly, though what is hard to find is self-rising flour. When I went to the grocery store last night, they had only one kind of self-rising flour, and they did not have self-rising cake flour. They also don't sell PET milk, which didn't matter since they did have Carnation evaporated milk and I had already planned on using heavy whipping cream in a recipe instead to give it a richer flavor. One other thing about food, you are much more likely to get local meats and cheeses and many restaurants try to use as many local ingredients as possible. Vermont cheese is phenomenal, by the way. Nearly every town seems to have their own beer brewery, and some places make hard cider, which I like better anyway. Citizen Cider's Unified Press is delicious, but that stuff will sneak up on you.

Also, Vermont politics are odd, especially the fact that with my political beliefs I'm considered a liberal Democrat in Alabama and more of a moderate Republican in Vermont.  I've always said that I was a moderate, but don't expect me to start considering myself a Republican just because I live in a "hippy-dippy liberal" state now. The town meetings and how they conduct their primary will be quite interesting.

Now to what I suspect you all really want to know: how do I perceive the way they treat gay people up here? First of all, let me say that Vermont does not have a single gay bar. They do have at least one bar that has a monthly gay night. I've looked into this to kind of understand why, because Vermont is a very gay-friendly state, but what I have found, or have been told, is that there isn't a need for a separate gay bar.  As a gay man, and I think many of you will agree with this, you don't always feel welcomed at hetero bars, but it's different here. I've been in a few bars and such here and it always seemed like there was a good mix of gay and straight people. Everyone is treated the same. Sadly this means that there are no go-go boys dancing nearly naked on the bars or shirtless bartenders, but I can live with that, as I have found the waiters and bartenders tend to be cute and flirty jut the same. Also, there seems to be a wide array of gay groups in the state.  I'm thinking of volunteering for Vermont Pride.

The thing is, sexuality seems to be a non-issue from anything I've seen. My boss went out of her way when I interviewed to let me know how open and accepting the university is and how supportive the president is of LGBT issues. I never mentioned I was gay, but I didn't try to hide it. It's part of who I am, but it's not my defining characteristic. I have sort of mentioned things here and there but it was just in normal conversation. One of my coworkers was asking me yesterday how I was adapting and how I liked it up here, and I told her how much I really love it. I told her that "I had wanted out of Alabama, because it's just not a good place to grow up as a gay boy." I think she was happy that I confirmed it.  I didn't want my sexuality to be office gossip, but I figured that at some point it would come up. This particular co-worker confided in me after I'd actually said that I was gay, that when I'd had my phone interview and I'd said that the school had put me on charge of the drama club, even though I had no previous experience with the dramatic arts, she knew she wanted to get me out of Alabama and really pushed for me to get the job. They had really liked my cover letter and resume, so all I had to do was back it up and be a pleasant person. I'd already been told that it was a unanimous vote amongst the staff to hire me, but I had no idea that they'd basically decided to hire me after my telephone interview.

The important thing is that I am free to be me. I can be myself, and I don't have to worry about hiding my politics to keep my job or hiding my sexuality to keep my job or hiding anything for that matter. I get to be the me that I've always wanted to be and do a job that really is a dream job because I am in a job where I am actually valued for my expertise and my work and opinion matters. Most of all, I am happy.

PS I realize that the winter will be harsh, but so far Mother Nature has been good to me.  She is slowly easing me into winter.  I've been told that Vermont is having its mildest November in a long time, and December is expected to slowly bring us into the brunt of the winter. I am sure that in a couple of months, I will be complaining about the weather and how cold it is, but right now I am looking forward to it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


By Henry David Thoreau, 1816 - 1861

Low-anchored cloud,
Newfoundland air,
Fountain-head and source of rivers,
Dew-cloth, dream-drapery,
And napkin spread by fays;
Drifting meadow of the air,
Where bloom the daisied banks and violets,
And in whose fenny labyrinth
The bittern booms and heron wades;
Spirit of lakes and seas and rivers,—
Bear only perfumes and the scent
Of healing herbs to just men’s fields.

Some of you who have followed this blog over he years, might know that I have a particular affinity for the Transcendentalists.  They aren't an easy group to wrap your head around, but once you do, it is well worth it.  Transcendentalism is a very formal word that describes a very simple idea. People, men and women equally, have knowledge about themselves and the world around them that "transcends" or goes beyond what they can see, hear, taste, touch or feel.  This knowledge comes through intuition and imagination not through logic or the senses. People can trust themselves to be their own authority on what is right. A transcendentalist is a person who accepts these ideas not as religious beliefs but as a way of understanding life relationships.

One of the transcendentalists' core beliefs was in the inherent goodness of both people and nature, in opposition to ideas of man as inherently sinful, or "fallen," and nature as something to be conquered. They believed that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent. Their concept of self-reliance differed from the traditional usage of the word, however, in that it referred primarily to a fierce intellectual independence or self-reliance. They believed that individuals were capable of generating completely original insights with as little attention and deference to past masters as possible.

At its heart, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and other Transcendentalists, believed that nature guided the universe.  We should not try to tame nature just as we should not try to tame the mind of the individual.  So what if you're different from what the masses consider the norm.  It doesn't matter because we can transcend those mass marketed ideas. Sadly, Americans did not learn from the Transcendentalists. Instead of thinking for themselves, they tune into news broadcasts and talk radio to find out what they are supposed to think.  They blindly follow religious teachers without trying to really understand God. If the Transcendentalists could see America today, they would believe that most Americans are mere lemmings who follow the crowds without paying attention to where they are going.

In the poem above, Thoreau uses a mist, or a fog, to give an example of nature. I think what draws me most to this poem is its lyrical quality. It doesn't rhyme and it doesn't follow a particular beat or poetic meter, but yet, the description is beautiful and melodic in its own self-reliant way. In its most basic form, "Mist" is a short poem that describes the different types of mist, but Thoreau also uses this poem to describe how nature is the only thing that can heal men's spirits.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Headache and Sleep

I only got out of bed a few times yesterday. I had one of my bad headaches. It started Saturday night, so I took some medicine which relieved it for a while and let me sleep, but then I woke again in the very early hours of the morning and took some more medicine. Again that helped for a few hours but when I woke again, the headache was back, so I tried a different medicine. The other medicine did nothing, so I waited and then took the strongest medicine I had available.  It wasn't long before I was once again sound asleep.  When I woke I was feeling better, but the feeling didn't last long. I'm hoping that by the time this posts this morning, I will be feeling much better.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Good Samaritan

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”Luke 10:29-37 (NRSV)

I think everyone is aware of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  It's one of the most beloved parables in the Bible. Sadly though, there aren't enough real Good Samaritans in life. I want to share a story of on particular Good Samaritan. I read this story and cried.  She came from such an unlikely place, but she was an angel, a Godsend, and a Good Samaritan to those who needed her, especially when so many others passed them by.

It's hard to convince people these days that one lonely person can budge the vast stone wheel of apathy. The truth, though, is the same as it ever was: One pair of willing hands might inspire thousands or millions to push. That's the way the world is changed: hand by hand.

One person who found the courage to push the wheel is Ruth Coker Burks. Now a grandmother living a quiet life in Rogers, in the mid-1980s Burks took it as a calling to care for people with AIDS at the dawn of the epidemic, when survival from diagnosis to death was sometimes measured in weeks. For about a decade, between 1984 and the mid-1990s and before better HIV drugs and more enlightened medical care for AIDS patients effectively rendered her obsolete, Burks cared for hundreds of dying people, many of them gay men who had been abandoned by their families. She had no medical training, but she took them to their appointments, picked up their medications, helped them fill out forms for assistance, and talked them through their despair. Sometimes she paid for their cremations. She buried over three dozen of them with her own two hands, after their families refused to claim their bodies. For many of those people, she is now the only person who knows the location of their graves.

So much of the history of AIDS in America died with the people who lived it. What is left has often been shoved into the cabinet of Times Best Forgotten. Here, though, is a story from those days. It's a story about what courage can do.

The red door

It started in 1984, in a hospital hallway.

Burks, now 55, was 25 and a young mother when she went to University Hospital in Little Rock to help care for a friend who had cancer. Her friend eventually went through five surgeries, Burks said, so she spent a lot of time that year parked in hospitals. That's where she was the day she noticed the door, one with "a big, red bag" over it. It was a patient's room. "I would watch the nurses draw straws to see who would go in and check on him. It'd be: 'Best two out of three,' and then they'd say, 'Can we draw again?' "

She knew what it probably was, even though it was early enough in the epidemic for the disease to be called GRID — gay-related immune deficiency — instead of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). She had a gay cousin in Hawaii and had asked him about the stories of a gay plague after seeing a report on the news. He'd told her, "That's just the leather guys in San Francisco. It's not us. Don't worry." Still, in her concern for him, she'd read everything she could find about the disease over the previous months, hoping he was right.

Whether because of curiosity or — as she believes today — some higher power moving her, Burks eventually disregarded the warnings on the red door and snuck into the room. In the bed was a skeletal young man, wasted to less than 100 pounds. He told her he wanted to see his mother before he died.

"I walked out and [the nurses] said, 'You didn't go in that room, did you?' " Burks recalled. "I said, 'Well, yeah. He wants his mother.' They laughed. They said, 'Honey, his mother's not coming. He's been here six weeks. Nobody's coming. Nobody's been here, and nobody's coming.' "

Unwilling to take no for an answer, Burks wrangled a number for the young man's mother out of one of the nurses, then called. She was only able to speak for a moment before the woman on the line hung up on her.

"I called her back," Burks said. "I said, 'If you hang up on me again, I will put your son's obituary in your hometown newspaper and I will list his cause of death.' Then I had her attention."

Her son was a sinner, the woman told Burks. She didn't know what was wrong with him and didn't care. She wouldn't come, as he was already dead to her as far as she was concerned. She said she wouldn't even claim his body when he died. It was a hymn Burks would hear again and again over the next decade: sure judgment and yawning hellfire, abandonment on a platter of scripture. Burks estimates she worked with more than a thousand people dying of AIDS over the course of the years. Of those, she said, only a handful of families didn't turn their backs on their loved ones. Whether that was because of religious conviction or fear of the virus, Burks still doesn't know.

Burks hung up the phone, trying to decide what she should tell the dying man. "I didn't know what to tell him other than, 'Your mom's not coming. She won't even answer the phone,' " she said. There was nothing to tell him but the truth.

"I went back in his room," she said, "and when I walked in, he said, 'Oh, momma. I knew you'd come,' and then he lifted his hand. And what was I going to do? What was I going to do? So I took his hand. I said, 'I'm here, honey. I'm here.' "

Burks said it was probably the first time he'd been touched by a person not wearing two pairs of gloves since he arrived at the hospital. She pulled a chair to his bedside, and talked to him, and held his hand. She bathed his face with a cloth, and told him she was there. "I stayed with him for 13 hours while he took his last breath on earth," she said.

She hasn't talked much about that day until recently. People always ask her why she wasn't afraid. "I have no idea," she said. "The thought of being afraid never occurred to me until after I was already deep into the AIDS crisis. I just asked God, 'If this is what you want me to do, just please don't let me or my daughter get it.' And He didn't."

'Someday, all of this is going to be yours'

Ruth Coker Burks' family came to Garland County in 1826. She was born in Hot Springs, and was a childhood friend of Bill Clinton's. While Clinton was in the White House, she said, they wrote back and forth, with Burks filling him in on all the hometown gossip from time to time.

Since at least the late 1880s, Burks' kin have been buried in Files Cemetery, a half-acre of red dirt on top of a hill above Central Avenue in Hot Springs. Drivers using Files Road as a cut-through to avoid the traffic on Central zip past the graveyard without even seeing it. If you stand in the right spot among the old, mossy tombstones in the winter, you can see a sliver of Lake Hamilton, glimmering like a cut sapphire through a gap in the trees.

When Burks was a girl, she said, her mother got in a final, epic row with Burks' uncle. To make sure he and his branch of the family tree would never lie in the same dirt as the rest of them, Burks said, her mother quietly bought every available grave space in the cemetery: 262 plots. They visited the cemetery most Sundays after church when she was young, Burks said, and her mother would often sarcastically remark on her holdings, looking out over the cemetery and telling her daughter: "Someday, all of this is going to be yours."

"I always wondered what I was going to do with a cemetery," she said. "Who knew there'd come a time when people didn't want to bury their children?"

Files Cemetery is where Burks buried the ashes of the man she'd seen die, after a second call to his mother confirmed she wanted nothing to do with him, even in death. "No one wanted him," she said, "and I told him in those long 13 hours that I would take him to my beautiful little cemetery, where my daddy and grandparents were buried, and they would watch out over him."

Burks had to contract with a funeral home in Pine Bluff for the cremation. It was the closest funeral home she could find that would even touch the body. She said she paid for the cremation out of her savings.

The ashes were returned to her in a cardboard box. She went to a friend at Dryden Pottery in Hot Springs, who gave her a chipped cookie jar for an urn. Then she went to Files Cemetery and used a pair of posthole diggers to excavate a hole in the middle of her father's grave.

"I knew that Daddy would love that about me," she said, "and I knew that I would be able to find him if I ever needed to find him." She put the urn in the hole and covered it over. She prayed over the grave, and it was done.

Over the next few years, as she became one of the go-to people in the state when it came to caring for those dying with AIDS, Burks would bury over 40 people in chipped cookie jars in Files Cemetery. Most of them were gay men whose families would not even claim their ashes.

"My daughter would go with me," Burks said. "She had a little spade, and I had posthole diggers. I'd dig the hole, and she would help me. I'd bury them and we'd have a do-it-yourself funeral. I couldn't get a priest or a preacher. No one would even say anything over their graves."

She believes the number was 43, but she isn't sure. Somewhere in her attic, in a box, among the dozens of yellowed day planners she calls her Books of the Dead, filled with the appointments, setbacks and medications of people 30 years gone, there is a list of names.

Burks said she always made a last effort to reach out to families before she put the urns in the ground. "I tried every time," she said. "They hung up on me. They cussed me out. They prayed like I was a demon on the phone and they had to get me off — prayed while they were on the phone. Just crazy. Just ridiculous."

She learned to say the funerals herself, after being rebuffed by preachers and priests too many times. Even so, she said she never doubted what she was doing. "It never made me question my faith at all," she said. "I knew that what I was doing was right, and I knew that I was doing what God asked me. It wasn't a voice from the sky. I knew deep in my soul."


After she cared for the dying man at University Hospital, people started calling, asking for her help. "They just started coming," she said. "Word got out that there was this kind of wacko woman in Hot Springs who wasn't afraid. They would tell them, 'Just go to her. Don't come to me. Here's the name and number. Go.'... I was their hospice. Their gay friends were their hospice. Their companions were their hospice."

Before long, she was getting referrals from rural hospitals all over the state. Financing her work through donations and sometimes her own pocket, she'd take patients to their appointments, help them get assistance when they could no longer work, help them get their medicines, and try to cheer them up when the depression was dark as a pit. She said many pharmacies wouldn't handle prescriptions for AIDS drugs like AZT, and there was fear among even those who would. Somewhere, she said, she has a large coffee can full of 30 year-old pens. Once pharmacy clerks learned she was working with AIDS patients, she said, many of them would insist she keep the pen after signing a check. "They didn't want it in their building," she said. "They would come out with a can of Lysol and spray me out the door."

She'd soon stockpiled what she called an "underground pharmacy" in her house. "I didn't have any narcotics, but I had AZT, I had antibiotics," she said. "People would die and leave me all of their medicines. I kept it because somebody else might not have any."

Burks said the financial help they gave patients — from burial expenses to medications to rent for those unable to work — couldn't have happened without the support of the gay clubs around the state, particularly Little Rock's Discovery. "They would twirl up a drag show on Saturday night and here'd come the money," she said. "That's how we'd buy medicine, that's how we'd pay rent. If it hadn't been for the drag queens, I don't know what we would have done."

Norman Jones is the owner of Discovery. Opened in 1979, the club once served a primarily gay clientele, though now the crowd is often mixed. He's old enough to remember the fear of the early days of the epidemic. In 1988, Jones helped found the charity group Helping People with AIDS, with which Burks worked. The group is still around, helping those with the disease. "She worked with us for several years there," Jones said. "She went out and did home visits, and she'd work determining who would qualify for the money."

Jones said that as AIDS moved into Arkansas, he and the club's employees decided to do something to help. "The impersonators and the bartenders that worked at the club and I decided that we'd start doing once-a-year benefits to start a fund called Helping People with AIDS," he said. "We started raising money every year and we still do so today, over 25 years later." Jones said the money generated by the fund, as well as a percentage of the club's sales, have helped the AIDS Foundation and other groups assisting those with the disease.

After AIDS came to Arkansas, Jones said, he started to see the changes almost immediately. Even a rumor that someone had HIV could make their friends shun them. "We had so many people who were affected by it when it first hit that it was like, wham!" he said. "It was like you were being thrown up against a brick wall. Everyone said, 'Don't touch them. Don't talk to them.' " Even something as slight as losing a few pounds was enough to make people afraid to associate with a person, Jones said. The fear was rampant. "It made everyone feel aware that something was happening out there," he said. "We didn't know what was happening, but there was a fear of it."

Burks' stories from that time border on nightmarish, with her watching one person after another waste away before her eyes. She would sometimes go to three funerals a day in the early years, including the funerals of many people she'd befriended while fighting the disease. Many of her memories seem to have blurred together into a kind of terrible shade. Others are told with perfect, minute clarity.

There was the man whose family insisted he be baptized in a creek in October, three days before he died, to wash away the sin of being gay; whose mother pressed a spoonful of oatmeal to his lips pleading, "Roger, eat. Please eat, Roger. Please, please, please" until Burks gently took the spoon and bowl from her; who died at 6-foot-6 and 75 pounds; whose aunts came to his parents' house after the funeral in plastic suits and yellow gloves to double-bag his clothes and scrub everything, even the ceiling fan, with bleach.

She recalled the odd sensation of sitting with dying people while they filled out their own death certificate, because Burks knew she wouldn't be able to call on their families for the required information. "We'd sit and fill it out together," she said. "Can you imagine filling out your death certificate before you die? But I didn't have that information. I wouldn't have their mother's maiden name or this, that or the other. So I'd get a pizza and we'd have pizza and fill out the death certificate."

She remembered the Little Rock man who "had so much fluid on his lungs that he couldn't breathe. He couldn't talk, and he would gag when he was trying to talk. His mother, we had called and called and called. ... He wanted to talk to his mother and wanted me to try again. I got the answering machine, and I just handed the phone to him. He cried and gagged. It was excruciating listening to him ask his mother if she'd come to the hospital. She never came. The day before the funeral, she called and asked if she could come to the funeral. He's buried in [Files] cemetery."

She recalled the mother who called Burks up and demanded to know how much longer it would be before her son died. " 'I just want to know, when is he going to die?' " Burks recalled the woman asking. "'We have to get on with our lives, and he's holding up our lives. We can't go on with our lives until he dies. He's ruined our lives, and we don't want people up here to know [he has AIDS], so how long do you think he's going to stay here?' Like it was a punishment to her."

Billy, however, is the one who hit her hardest, and the one she remembers most clearly of all. He was one of the youngest she ever cared for, a female impersonator in his early 20s. He was beautiful, she said, perfect and fine-boned. She still has one of Billy's dresses in her closet up in Rogers: a tiny, flame-red designer number, intricate as an orchid. It was Billy's mother, she said, who called up to ask how much longer it would be before they could get on with their lives.

As Billy's health declined, Burks accompanied him to the mall in Little Rock to quit his job at a store there. Afterward, she said, he wept, Burks holding the frail young man as shoppers streamed around them. "He broke down just sobbing in the middle of the mall," she said. "I just stood there and held him until he quit sobbing. People were looking and pointing and all that, but I couldn't care less."

Once, a few weeks before Billy died — he weighed only 55 pounds, the lightest she ever saw, light as a feather, so light that she was able to lift his body from the bed with just her forearms — Burks had taken Billy to an appointment in Little Rock. Afterward, they were driving around aimlessly, trying to get his spirits up. She often felt like crying in those days, she said, but she couldn't let herself. She had to be strong for them.

"He was so depressed. It was horrible," she said. "We were driving by the zoo, and somebody was riding an elephant. He goes: 'You know, I've never ridden an elephant.' I said: 'Well, we'll fix that.' " And she turned the car around. Somewhere, in the boxes that hold all her terrible memories, there's a picture of the two of them up on the back of the elephant, Ruth Coker Burks in her heels and dress, Billy with a rare smile.

Two or more

When it was too much, she said, she'd go fishing. And it wasn't all terrible. While Burks got to see the worst of people, she said, she was also privileged to see people at their best, caring for their partners and friends with selflessness, dignity and grace. She said that's why she's been so happy to see gay marriage legalized all over the country.

"I watched these men take care of their companions, and watch them die," she said. "I've seen them go in and hold them up in the shower. They would hold them while I washed them. They would carry them back to the bed. We would dry them off and put lotion on them. They did that until the very end, knowing that they were going to be that person before long. Now, you tell me that's not love and devotion? I don't know a lot of straight people that would do that."

Sometimes, she would listen to the confessions of the dying. "Whatever they wanted to tell their God, I would help them tell their God," she said. "I figured, if the religious people weren't going to do it, someone has to. If God wanted me to do this, then surely I can say: Yes, you're going to heaven. ... The Bible says that if you're two or more, and you ask God for forgiveness, He will forgive you. There were two of us, so that was the best I could do."

In all the years she worked with AIDS patients, she said, she never wore gloves unless the patients had broken skin. It was touching them, she believes, that kept those she cared for alive longer than others. By the 1990s, experts in the field were beginning to take note.

"My [HIV] patients lived two years longer than the national average," Burks said. "They would send people from all over the world to the National Institutes of Health, they would send them to the CDC, and they would send them to me. They sent them to me so they could see what I was doing that helped them live. I think it was because I loved them. They were like my children, even though I was burying people my age."

Burks helped care for Raymond Harwood, a Hot Springs resident who died in 1994 at age 42. His father, Jim Harwood, said Burks met Raymond through an outreach program sponsored by the local Catholic Church. Jim recalled Burks as a very caring person. "She was absolutely sweet," Harwood said. "One of the kindest, sweetest people I've ever known."

God, Harwood said, has a hand in everything, so He had a hand in bringing Burks into their lives. Harwood said he was surprised to hear from Burks that some parents abandoned their children when they were diagnosed with AIDS.

"I wasn't brought up that way," Harwood said. "Are you going to desert your son? I don't care what he did. He could have gone out and murdered people. He's still your son. You may not like what he does, but you love him."

Back to God

Ruth Coker Burks had a stroke five years ago, early enough in her life that she can't help but believe that the stress of the bad old days had something to do with it. After the stroke, she had to relearn everything: to talk, to feed herself, to read and write. It's probably a miracle she's not buried in Files Cemetery herself.

After better drugs, education, understanding and treatment made her work obsolete, she moved to Florida for several years, where she worked as a funeral director and a fishing guide. When Bill Clinton was elected president, she served as a White House consultant on AIDS education.

A few years ago, she moved to Rogers to be closer to her grandchildren. In 2013, she went to bat for three foster children who were removed from the elementary school at nearby Pea Ridge after administrators heard that one of them might be HIV positive. Burks said she couldn't believe she was still dealing with the same, knee-jerk fears in the 21st century.

The work she and others did in the 1980s and 1990s has mostly been forgotten, partly because so many of those she knew back then have died. She's not the only one who did that work, but she's one of the few who survived. And so she has become the keeper of memory.

She was surprised in recent months when a producer with the oral history project StoryCorps reached out to her, asking her to tell her story on tape. Part of that interview was eventually broadcast on National Public Radio. She talked to the BBC this week, and other requests for interviews keep coming. She honestly seems a little shocked that anyone cares after all these years.

She talks of those days like an old soldier, tears only touching her eyes when she speaks of Billy, or her father's grave, or how she sometimes wonders if her choice to help AIDS patients as a young woman, and the ostracism that brought, may have kept her from being everything she could have been. Still, she clearly sees those years as the time when she had a mission, maybe even one ordained by a higher power. Too, she said, she loved and believes she was loved by the people whose lives she touched — every one. Even as they were dying, they showed her what bravery is, and brought joy into her life. "They were good days," she said, "because I was blessed with handing these people back to God."

She hasn't been back to Files Cemetery since her stroke. While she made sure it was kept up back when she lived in Hot Springs, it appeared to have been let go a bit when the reporter visited in late December, some of the tombstones pushed over and broken, the snag of a dead oak left to rot among the graves. Even without knowing the story of the place, it might have been downright spooky if not for the constant stream of traffic cruising by at 10 miles an hour over the speed limit.

Before she's gone, she said, she'd like to see a memorial erected in the cemetery. Something to tell people the story. A plaque. A stone. A listing of the names of the unremembered dead that lie there.

"Someday," she said, "I'd love to get a monument that says: This is what happened. In 1984, it started. They just kept coming and coming. And they knew they would be remembered, loved and taken care of, and that someone would say a kind word over them when they died."

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Friday, November 20, 2015

Do I Sound Gay?

About a year and a half ago, I wrote another post with this same title: Do I Sound Gay? It was about a documentary that had a Kickstarter campaign to get it produced. I've wanted to see it since I first read about it.  Wednesday night, it came up on my Netflix suggestions so I watched it. David Thorpe made this documentary about his journey to sound more "straight." He went to a speech therapist, and talked to celebrities and friends about "gay voices."  It was really quite interesting.

I've talked about my voice before, and I've always been self conscious of it. After watching this documentary, I honestly think that I am less self conscious than I used to be. One of the things that this documentary talks about is what is the so-called "gay voice."  Speech experts said that it is basically made up of five characteristics.

1. Gay men tend to pronounce their vowels more clearly.
2. We also send to draw out our vowels longer.
3. Also, our Ss are longer, often giving us the stereotypical lisp.
4. We pronounce our Ls longer.
5. Gay men overarticulating Ps Ts and Ks.

One of the things that many gay men who were considered to have gay voices had speech impediments when they were younger.  Some had speech therapy, others like myself did not.  Having a lisp or speech impediment caused many gay men to be more precise in their speech. More masculine speech tends to be less articulate.  Of course the deepness of someone's voice also plays a factor in this. Upper class voices are considered more gay, which is a stereotype from the dandies in old movies. Basically, Thorpe came to the realization that sounding educated, cosmopolitan and refines equals the gay voice. 

So, why is the gay voice derided by hetero and homosexual alike? One it is seen as more feminine. Gay men say they want a "man," if they wanted a woman they'd be straight.  Also, those dandies in old movies were either villains or comic relief.  They were not characters to be admired. Then you have what Disney did for the gay voice. Disney used the "gay voice" for its male villains. Think of the voices of Captain Hook (Peter Pan), Jafar (Alladin), Prince John (Robin Hood), Professor Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective), and Scar (The Lion King).  Each of these characters is portrayed with what we would often consider the exaggerated stereotypical gay voice.  No wonder we hate our own voices.

What I found most interesting is that David Thorpe is a fellow southerner, from Columbia, South Carolina.  When he went to the speech therapist, one of the things she tried to do is to remove the last vestiges of his southern accent.  I think often gay southerners have it worse because we do draw out our words, we do overarticulate, and we are more precise in our language. And if you think of any southern gentleman in a comedic role, he has the gay voice.  I do not want to lose my southern accent, and besides, my accent is much more noticeable than my "gay voice" up here in Vermont.

What did I learn from watching "Do I Sound Gay?" I learned to be proud of who I am and how I sound. I fought hard to get to a place in my life where I wasn't constantly trying to hide my sexuality. Therefore, if people perceive me as having a gay voice, well, so be it. At this point, fuck them if they can't accept me the way that I am.