Some Of My Best Friends Are Gay

Candle burningIt’s happened again.

Another gay teen has taken his own life because of bullying.

“My name is Brandon Joseph Elizares and I couldn’t make it. I love you guys with all of my heart,” read the note he left behind before he committed suicide on June 2nd in Texas.

Brandon was 16. He will always be 16.

We are, it seems to me, supposed to be better than this. We shake our heads in sadness, or disgust, or because that’s what we’re conditioned to do. Brandon’s school, his mom has said, apparently did all it could to stop the bullying he suffered. Where were the peers who could have stepped in? Where were the leaders and champions? Where were the allies? Where were the friends?

I am pleased to have reconnected with a good friend from high school over the past few years. We grew closest in our senior year at Onondaga Central and the summer after. He did not come out as gay until years later, and as we lost touch as tends to happen when life moves on, I didn’t become aware of this fact until shortly before getting back in touch with him.

We had lunch while I was on a business trip in 2009. In addition to the general catching up were some more serious topics. I said to my old friend that I wished he would have been able to live as “himself” back at school. To have been able to not fight a constant internal war against who he is and who he was “supposed to be.”

My friend sort of shrugged and said, “I just couldn’t stand the thought of any of you guys calling me a faggot.”

Unfortunately, the best answer to that I could muster was “I would hope that we wouldn’t have done that.”

His friends.

Now, more than ever, we need more than “hope.” We need people of character, people with moral courage, to stand up and say that enough is enough.

One of the things I believe most strongly is the old chestnut that “you are either a part of the solution or a part of the problem.” All great movements require allies not directly affected by a new order of things. Civil Wars did not erupt over the Women’s Suffrage Movement, or the Civil Rights Movement, in some part because of the participation of allies who were not women or people of color.

I have it made. I am a middle-aged, heterosexual, white man in America. I understand that with that comes great opportunity…and great responsibility.

One of the central guiding figures in my life is Robert F. Kennedy, who said, “(f)ew are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.

These young lives ending barely as they’ve begun are our national disgrace. So, too, they are our national responsibility. “The Nation” won’t stop them, though. Because this is a human problem and it requires a human solution. It requires you, and it requires me. It requires the strength of character and the courage of will to simply do what is right.

To stand up.

To speak up.

To allow each of us the chance to live our lives as we are, not as who others want us to be.

So that one day soon, tragedies like Brandon’s will not happen again.

 

Life By What We Give

Generational HandsI used to have a large framed print in my office. It had an artsy photograph in closeup of a child holding a man’s hand. The caption read, in quoting Winston Churchill:

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

This past Saturday night it was my honor to attend with my wife the annual Distinguished Alumni Awards dinner at my alma mater, Le Moyne College. In particular, I was there to celebrate the honors bestowed upon Leslie Shaw, Ph.D. ’62, who was presented the Distinguished Alumnus Award, and Gabriel Bol Deng ’07, who received the Ignation Young Alumnus Award.

Les is the Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Co-Director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Lab; Interim Director of the Clinical Chemistry Lab; and Co-Director of the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative at UPenn.

All of those titles may make your head spin a bit, so I’ll boil it down for you: among numerous notable accomplishments, Les Shaw is on the cutting edge of research that is finding ways to predict, and thus significantly slow the progression of, Alzheimer’s Disease. Can those advances be far from an eventual cure?

The research on which his team works is widely collaborative. That in itself is inspiring for those of us who have read And The Band Played On and know the competitive history of medical research. I had an opportunity to tour the lab facilities with Les a few years ago. While some of the terminology was lost on me, the inspiration he drew and the excitement and purpose with which he undertakes his work was palpable.

At a time when many of his contemporaries are retired from their chosen professions, Les Shaw is still working at his…with passion mind you…striving for a healthier world. This man, doing this lives-altering work, has also been married to his beloved Mary for more than 40 years and is a proud father and beaming grandfather.

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Gabriel Bol Deng is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, having fled his village at age 10 after being separated from his parents during the Second Sudanese Civil War. He stayed as a refugee in Ethiopia and Kenya for about 14 years before coming to Syracuse in 2001.

We are both alumni of Onondaga Community College and Le Moyne, Gabe earning degrees in math education and philosophy. When he graduated from Le Moyne in 2007, he was named Student Teacher of the Year…in part for the work he did at Onondaga Central, where I spent my own formative years.

In 2009, the acclaimed documentary Rebuilding Hope chronicled Gabe’s return to southern Sudan, with two fellow Lost Boys, to search for their families.

Gabe has founded HOPE for Ariang to build an elementary school in his native village of Ariang in South Sudan.HOPE for Ariang The families there also have fresh water from wells drilled thanks to his efforts. The Foundation continues to raise funds for supplies, teachers, teacher training, fencing to enclose the campus, and solar power equipment.

Of all the people I’ve ever met, I can’t think of anyone who displays better the simple beauty of the best we can be than Gabriel Bol Deng. For all the harshness and darkness he has experienced and the death he has seen, he fills a room with a genuine kindness and light every time I have been in his company. He is not an inspiration because he has done great things, and will no doubt do more. It is that he has done them against seemingly insurmountable odds…and that he has done them for others.

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Most of the time, life isn’t as much about what happens to you, as it is about how you respond. We all have our struggles and we all have our obstacles. Some of us become prisoners of them, even letting them define us long after those obstacles appear to be gone. Others simply will not, defining themselves instead on what they do now.

I know with certainty that I am a better man for having been in the good company of Leslie Shaw and Gabriel Bol Deng, as I try to be just a little bit more like they are.

Striving to make a life by what I give.

Wikipedia: I is the ninth letter and a vowel in the ISO basic Latin alphabet.