Two flannel shirts

This week, we have a guest post from Mark Blair, who lives in eastern Kentucky, in the Appalachia region of the U.S. Mark’s story – which includes being gay in a rural environment, participating in the leather/bear community, and being part of the older gay demographic – will be included in my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community. This particular segment of his story that’s featured this week is HIV – more specifically, HIV in the 1980s, in a rural Appalachian hospital.

* * * * * * * * * *

I met Jon in a leather bar in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was passing through on his way back home to Detroit after visiting his mother in Kentucky. I was there to help a friend break up with his boyfriend. Jon and I had what is called a “Daddy/boy” leather relationship, since I was 15 years older than him. He moved into my house in the middle of rural Appalachia.

Five years after he moved in and we began our relationship, he became ill. He told me he was HIV+ right after we met, but we fell in love anyway, and that just became another facet of our relationship. Our doctor had put us in a private room (it really was a double, but our doctor knew that no one would put anyone else in there – so it worked out great for us). This was the late 80’s. When I came to the hospital from work I always would say hi to the nurses in the nurse’s station, and they were always very friendly. Giving them chocolate helped.

When Jon was in the hospital for his third week, I came out of the elevator (as I always did) and said hi to the nurses. They greeted me coldly, which I thought was odd, but I just continued down to the room. I asked Jon why the odd reaction, and he said that Mary – one of the nicer nurses – came in his room this morning. She was fiddling with the IV and other things, and then she said, “I know you’re not a hemophiliac.” She then asked if he had experimented with drugs.

“No,” said Jon.

Mary continued to ask some other questions, until finally Jon figured out what she was aiming at. At one point, Mary said, “We all think it’s so wonderful that your father is there for you. He’s so supportive.”

Jon laughed. He said, “He’s my husband. ‘Daddy’ is just a name he calls me, and he calls me ‘boy.'” He then added, “I’m gay. I got the virus 8 years ago when I was 18, when it was just called GRID.”

“Oh,” Mary said, and then quickly left the room.

The cold shoulder treatment began. This was a Catholic hospital. Jon and I started trying to figure out another hospital to go to, and how we would talk this over with our doctor. And then one day, Mary and another nurse came in, and we prepared for the worst.

After mumbling and random conversation, they both apologized for their and the other nurses’ and staff behavior. They said they were just surprised when Jon told them. Mary said that she and the rest of the staff had never seen so much love and caring between two people. They said they had thought about a lot of things, and they asked us to forgive them. From that point on, they treated us like family. After we had been going to the hospital for about a year, two of the nurses told us that they had left their church because they could not take the sermons about homosexuals. They said they had seen love and sacrifice, and they knew that their minister was wrong.

A year and half later Jon died. That Christmas I got an invitation to the hospital’s nursing and staff Christmas party. They told me that I gave as much care as anyone in the hospital, that I deserved to come to the party, and that they did not want me to be alone so soon after Jon died. They collected some money and bought me two flannel shirts as a present. That was many years ago, and I am not that size any longer, but they still hang in my closet, to remind me that compassion that can be found in places you wouldn’t ever expect.

Mark H. Blair

* * * * * * * * * *

Thank you, Mark, for sharing your story.


Filed under BDSM, coming out, health, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, LGBTQ, relationships

2 responses to “Two flannel shirts

  1. Gayle, Mark, thank you. This story has been replicated many, many times in rural and urban areas here and around the world. But the specifics of your narrative still move me. Thanks for sharing it now. But, moreover, thanks for living your life honestly, courageoulsy, and with love back then.

    As we all know, this story might have turned out quite differently and often does. In Mark’s situation the loving couple created a dissonance between what the nurses were taught and what they witnessed. Reality won the day. In other situations, victory is delayed or denied because the strength of intolerance outstrips love: for some the world as they know it will crack and fall away. These nurses were willing to have theirs be irrevocably altered (leave their churches) in the face of goodness. I think that the reality of goodness and love is humbly. Mark’s narrative only hints at it, but I bet it was stunning to witness first hand. Well done!

    • Too often, fear and intolerance outstrip love and acceptance. Having witnessed so much intolerance, it’s such a boost to hear a story where people actually examined their feelings and underwent a change in worldview, instead of merely acting out on their feelings to preserve “the world as they know it,” to use your phrase, Gary. And yes, I bet it was stunning to witness that event first-hand.

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