Good Night Sweet Prince:
A story of Renegades and Role Models
Third Place, 2003 Affirmation Writing Contest
by Sam Clayton
"Mom, can you take a picture of me?" It's a hot summer day but I'm
inside, standing in the entrance to the hallway, 11 years old and holding
the gold disc camera. Mom is lying on the couch in the dark living room,
reading the newspaper off the floor.
"How do I look?" I ask, out on a limb and fishing, wondering if I heard
hesitancy in her voice, or if it was only that she wanted to be left
"Well, you look wonderful honey." She answers after the slightest pause,
sending reassurance as she gets up and courageously and awkwardly holds
the camera to her eye. She pauses again to move the long dark-brown
hair out of her face and take off her glasses. "I remember when I used
to wear that dress, before I was married. It was one of my favorites.
Can't believe my son can wear it now." She makes the comment with that
'Oh how the time flies' ring to her voice, as if time passing was the
only thing out of the ordinary. As she speaks I turn to the side for
a quick profile shot, and look down at the polyester flowers, imagining
my mother, pretty and skinny and free, walking through a hippie town
somewhere in California.
"You know," she says as she snaps away, her voice gaining that unique
rebellious confidence that only she has, that can vindicate anything,
"Garth Allred played with dolls and played dress up when he was young…
and he turned out just fine."
Garth -- and Mom
I've known the name Garth Allred all my life. When I was a small boy in the early 80's, he was the grown-up, married son of President Hank Allred, our towering, seasoned, general-authority-like stake president, who was helping my father so patiently and generously with his 3-year disfellowshipment and repentence process after his affair with Sister Watson. She was a woman from the ward, still is as a matter of fact, and during the affair, my mother's close "church friend." And although this rather consequential occurrence doesn't actually pertain to my story directly, in another way it does. In a way it lingers, under many things.
I didn't actually know Garth Allred, not personally anyway. In fact I can only honestly say that I remember meeting him but a few times in my life. He had escaped our little rural, close-knit town not long after I was born. Upon the completion of things like his mission and BYU education, he evacuated to much more interesting and cosmopolitan locations than the Lower Yakima Valley in rural Washington State. "The Valley" is of course where I also grew up, dreaming of my own departure, as I cut asparagus in the morning heat of my father's farm, and rode home for school on the tailgate of his old grey pickup, jockeying for position with the other 4 oldest kids in the family. When newly adult, previous ward members would come home to visit from places like Boston or even Seattle, where Garth and his wife and daughter had eventually settled, I would always wonder if someday that would be me.
Yet he became one of the key mythic figures of my life. And it wasn't these relatively mundane details about him that caused that to happen. The paramount, truly essential reason for this development boiled down to one thing: my mother loved him to death.
During my childhood she talked about him all the time, about his charm and his wit, his eccentricity and his talent, his almost complete lack of regard for conventionality. "And he's just SO funny" she'd gasp, her eyes rolling back as she grabbed my arm urgently, "Makes me laugh -- Hyst-er-i-cally". She'd go on and on about his dancing talents, and his heroic ability to bring sparkling life, and more importantly for my mother, tension relieving humor, to the dreariest, most harrowingly uncomfortable of ward functions.
And then, as I'd be waiting for almost desperately through any story she'd tell about him, the comparison. The words that provided me with the two things I needed most in life: her approval, and that feeling like maybe I actually was a good person. She would say I reminded her of him. When she did it, it was like she was opening my mouth and pouring light and love into a very dark place, very deep inside.
It was our own little thing too, something we did without the other kids. We were like a support group for 2 in those days, a little before they were hip. I about 9 to 11 years old, her about 35, spending days home from school laughing and telling each other alternatively hysterical or shocking stories. I'd come up with entertaining, perceptive stories of my own that she that she seemed to love, especially if she was sad or tired. Or I would listen attentively to her stories, of either happy, often crazy experiences from her youth, or ones of injustice, about Dad, or her manic-depressive, movie-star-persona mother (Grandma, who I secretly loved beyond words, but would always nod sympathetically), who would show up for surprise visits, in rhinestone shoes and a pink Olivia Newton-John sweatshirt with "Maniac" scrawled recklessly across the front in turquoise, sloppy cursive.
Or she would talk about Church people from the ward, Sister Watson in particular, or Dad's family, who all lived in our valley where he was also raised, surrounding her like the sagebrush desert we lived in, and keeping her separate from her own more quirky, urban lifestyle and family, who never really understood her either. She was a private person, who guarded her own ways, who felt a constant pressure from others, real and imagined, to be somehow different than she was. She couldn't abide criticism, and far worse, being "monitored", and so developed deep kinships and loyalties with the other persecuted misfits or non-comformists of the world she encountered.
From her stories I learned an explanation of how different, interesting people get stuck in small towns, get trapped there, through marriage or out of an initial desire to just "lay low" for awhile. That not fitting in (my constant fear, that and not being the best) could actually be considered a good sign in the scheme of things. I began to hope that if you were born in a town like ours, like me, or like Garth, then a viable option, one that you didn't have to be ashamed of, was escape.
Sometimes Mom would sit in the rocking chair in the corner, bare feet up on the picture window, supported by long legs and incredibly callused feet, talking loudly and laughing freely, her hands jerking emphatically. Other times she would be huddled under a blanket, lying on the couch, and I would be sitting upright in the chair by the window, the sun streaming in on my white blond hair. I felt very grown up and important in the middle of all that, showing I could understand how grown-ups were: Mom, Dad, Church people, Grandma, Garth -- and me.
And then of course the dressing up. Her words about Garth would echo in my mind as I'd clip one of Grandma's ornate earrings to my ear. Of course I knew that the doll house and the My Little Ponies were a little odd, that other boys usually weren't Ginger, dressed in their sister's aqua, shimmering nightgown, when they all played Gilligan's Island. I didn't do "girl" things all the time, just sometimes. I didn't have to feel bad at home though, not like at school. Mom made it O.K -- and somehow Garth. He grew up without any problem, got married and had children. And although Mom never said it, we both knew exactly what she was talking about when she said he'd turned out fine. He wasn't gay.
* * * * * *
A few years later, when I was about 15, he was visiting from Seattle. He and Mom hadn't kept in touch as much in the most previous years, he'd been coming for visits far less often, and they seemed literally ecstatic to see each other. He had come to church for his parents farewell. President Allred had finally (after a millennium it seemed) been released from being the stake president and he and his wife, Marilyn, were leaving as mission presidents to South America. Garth was divorced by this time and had been for awhile. On the way to church that morning Mom had yelled back to us in the van as she was straining up into the passenger-seat mirror, hurriedly applying her special-occasion rouge and natural, earth-toned lipstick, that she wasn't "sure how active he is".
After sacrament meeting, Mom and Garth spent the two remaining hours of church crowded together on the tiny, mass produced, economy blue love seat in the foyer, laughing their heads off. I'd poke my head around the corner periodically to watch them and to see if Mom, still clutching her manual and flannel board cutouts, was ever going to go teach her primary class. I heard him invite her to Seattle for one of his seemingly infamous dinner parties that somehow still seemed to include real fur coats and very funny, artsy, elegant people. They laughed far too loudly as he (and somehow she along with him) bounced up and down on the loveseat hand in hand, miming a shared, secret wish of jumping up and down on the fur coats, piled on a bed in a dark cloakroom, as an imaginary, raucous party commenced outside. Mom gushed that she would love to come, grabbing the flimsy blue arm rest and pausing for a moment with that searching wide-eyed expression on her face that meant "Could I actually do it?", and then a silently-mouthed, exaggerated "Wow".
I rolled my eyes at her antics, although I was deeply entertained by them. She'd always completely lacked that restrained, consistent quality that other adults seemed to possess, that always made them appear more or less the same. With my mother's face it was either Alfred Hitchcock engrossment, or a blank stare -- and then of course only if that was the way she really felt. She couldn't fake interest if her family's life depended on it, which it often did. As I eavesdropped I wasn't exactly sure what was going on, or why I was so fascinated by the situation, but I did know one thing: nothing in the entire spectacle seemed very churchy to me.
She re-introduced us after church, this time more like I was an adult. I wondered if he was aware that I knew so much about him - or if he could see that I was different, too. Physically he was a tall, slender man with a strikingly angular, handsome face. His hair was far too long to pass the sacrament (Dad had just started hounding me about mine) and brown, with hints of gray, although he was only in his mid-thirties. It donned on me that he was actually wearing a formal, slightly sensational white tuxedo shirt, without vest or jacket, and I immediately thought of one of Mom's countless, obsessive costume episodes. The one that included the fervent procurement of 7 late-sixties mini tuxedo coats, each one miraculously fitting each of the then existing kids, and coming in colors of either pastel blue, yellow, or pink paisley-textured fabric. Of course we'd all had the same, awkwardly fabulous Halloween costume that year, but then actually continued to wear them, until literally years later, around the house, with hats that ranged from something out of the Great Gatsby to Davey Crockett Disneyland coon skin caps, all of which would be flung into different corners at a moments notice in search of the next distraction. And here was Garth Allred in a tuxedo shirt, skipping sunday school, and telling Mom about fancy dress parties. It couldn't have been more obvious to me why she liked him.
He was also wearing a woman's necklace around his collar instead of a bow tie. It hung, on the outside of the collar, a jewel or a token resting on the white ruffle. He had mentioned to Mom a moment before that his father had strongly "admonished" him to wear a tie, which he simply could not do, so he had asked to borrow one of his mother's necklaces. Mom and Garth seemed to think that was terribly funny, Mom always loving any story about defying expectations. Privately I wondered if she would think it quite so funny if I wanted to wear one of hers the following Sunday. I shook his hand and hoped that I had made a good impression, even though all I said was a smile and a nervous laugh. My natural wit and entertaining story telling abilities were nowhere to be found.
Mom said later, as Dad meandered us all the half-mile home at the normal 10 miles an hour, that she noticed that his teeth were gray, like he hadn't been taking care of them. She said that that was very unlike him.
* * * * * *
One spring day in 1992, almost 3 years later, I saw my mom hang up the phone with a blank look on her face.
"What is it Mom?" She waited an almost unbearable amount of time to answer.
"Garth is dead."
"What?" He was only thirty-seven.
"Garth Allred died on Monday. His funeral is tomorrow in Seattle."
"He died of AIDS." She was too shocked to cry.
"What? Did you know, Mom?"
"No I didn't. No one did."
She went to the funeral and came home with only general pieces of information, mostly about how stunned she and the caravan of ward members who drove up together were, all of whom had also loved him dearly but had known nothing. She said the group in attendance at the funeral was a very divided, diverse group. In my mind I saw a little huddled band of small-town Mormons each in one of their church uniforms, and then a soberly riotous group in fur coats and crew cuts.
But then there was a silence between us over the next few weeks, one that lasted well after the mourning period was over. I knew what my mom was thinking about, we both knew there was something. When she had made the announcement of his death, I felt a slice of fear cut through me. Almost by coincidence, I had just spent the immediate few months beginning the process of considering my own sexuality, even admitting my feelings to a very few close friends. What was she supposed to say about the man she'd used as her example of renegade, free-spiritedness? I finally decided to pretend that I was comfortable with discussing it.
"Are you sure he was gay, Mom?"
"Yes. Finally one of his sisters said it."
"So the family all knew?"
"Yes, and I found out that President Allred and Garth didn't get along for years, that
President Allred was uncomfortable with him. I didn't know that."
I decided to set her at ease.
"I know you're worried about me Mom. Just because he was, doesn't mean I am."
She looked relieved.
"I know but, it's just that I never thought he was, and I used to tell you..."
"I know Mom. It's OK."
I knew more though. I think we both did.
My sister Alicia is 16 months younger than me. We're number 2 and number 3, in a family of 11 children. She's the oldest of 8 girls. As very young children there were 5 of us, now called the Older Kids--5 children born in 6 years, 2 boys followed by 3 girls. Then there was a gap of nearly four years, which coincided with both my father's relationship with Sister Witchface, and therefore also my relationship with my mother. And then 6 more children.
As young children my brother and I were inseparable, and as the oldest, would taunt our sisters ruthlessly and turn them against each other in fierce competition for our acceptance. We all fought viciously, performing acts like the hurling of Fischer Price towns (the big ones) at each other at very short range, or smothering and choking and torturing until confessions and submissions were totally and utterly accomplished. Our fighting had the abandoned, attack-like quality of cornered animals. My sister Rachel, number 4, was the fiercest though, and was capable of almost superhuman acts of escape, resistance, or revenge, that would render the rest of us wide-eyed and speechless.
My mother was always greatly disturbed by this fighting of course and couldn't for the life of her understand it. I imagine this all happened just before the era of TV psychologists, before it might have been perceived that children fighting each other desperately over a scarcity of attention and approval, might actually be reacting to a lack of something remarkably similar from their parents, rather than just being plain, old-fashioned, bad kids. My mother would just shake her head from behind her People magazine, or morning sickness bowl, or both, and yell what was wrong with us.
But then, when my brother entered high school our connection severed and was exchanged for a cold, impersonal arrangement consisting of old resentments, undeclared competition, and a surprisingly hurtful game of silent treatment. I was developing toward a more socially ambitious, academic, drama and tennis orientation, and he was well established on the silent, football, girlfriend, homecoming king track. We didn't have a lot of things in common.
With that break, and the gradual shift in dynamics and alliances in the house that resulted, I began to consider something I considered very drastic. Eventually, after a long period of observation and a difficult process of mind re-programming, I began a slow and tentative drift in the direction of Alicia. I began to notice little shared interests, like an obsessive ability for memorizing old film-industry details, handed down from Mom, or comments from her that suddenly seemed relevant and insightful, and more than a little eccentrically funny. It was like a fog was lifting, and I was seeing a person, regarding and considering her for the first time as an actual human being, instead of a target. In many ways we were like strangers, or even like old school yard enemies, chosen arbitrarily on the first day of school, who actually didn't know anything about each other.
She of course regarded me and my overtures with only the utmost suspicion. I wouldn't have been surprised if she considered it all part of some new scheme that would end up with her utterly humiliated. It took over a year of occasional attempts, ones that usually ended in a yelling match or a confused stare, and then increasingly deepening conversations, before we actually became confidants. And then even more, friends, who could and would actually help each other in social situations, rather than hurt each other in that same old way, that way that felt like a straight jacket. Very soon I found myself in the strange ironic role of trying to unravel her negative self-image, the one I felt responsible for forming. I discovered unraveling to be a much more difficult process.
One night, when we were 17 and 16 years old, we were talking in my room in the middle of the night. Matthew had gone on his mission and I was the only sibling with their own room, due to the fact that I was the only boy at home at the time (Emmett would be born 1 1/2 years later). It was around the time of Garth's death, and I had very recently had the sudden, shocking realization that my sister might actually be gay too. We were both teased from time to time over the years, but I guess the denial I applied to my own situation, extended to hers as well. Now that my illusions were crumbling, she wasn't safe either.
Of course the most obvious clue was the one we were all totally accustomed to, but oddly never ever associated with same-sex attraction: Alicia's actresses. The pictures and posters plastering her bedroom walls (the one shared with three other sisters), and her oddly cluttered but somehow artistic scrap books, all of which featured Linda Hamilton from the Beauty and the Beast TV show, Madeleine Stowe during her Last of the Mohicans period, and Denise Crosby , who was Bing Crosby's granddaughter and had played Tasha Yar on Star Trek: the Next Generation, but had been tragically (Alicia watched it over and over on an old VHS videotape) killed off.
I was sitting at my blonde-wood, thoroughly sturdy, 60's office desk that grandpa gave us, which was actually far too big for the room, and Alicia was sprawled on the floor in one of her makeshift nightshirts, in a total disregard for modesty, for which she was famous. One time on a family trip when she was at least 13, she had stripped off her bathing suit, whirled around her head like a lasso, and brazenly slung it across a hotel pool at Matthew in a totally spontaneous moment of pure and playful revelry, totally unaware that Mom (oddly and incredibly uptight about nudity and sex, considering her 11 children and unconventional attitudes) and therefore us, were watching in frozen horror. The bathing suit hit Matthew across the neck and face, who was immovable in a petrified pose of panic, like he was the mold of a Pompeii ash victim. And still, even though she was scarred for life from the booming and shaming "What's wrong with you!!??" she received from Mom, she still persisted in lounging around the house in only towels, or these short nightshirts, her panties always completely showing.
We were talking about our usual topics that night, mostly movies, and about the various characters that made up our small, tenuous but crucial circles of friends in a town of less than 7,000 people. Finally, I stopped her and prepared her for a very serious question. She reacted with a very serious and concerned "What?" as she melodramatically got up on her elbows. Then I asked her if she was attracted to girls.
Instantly, her face contorted violently with the injured and betrayed face of someone that has been dogged and hounded to the edge. It was so sudden and extreme that I laughed without thinking it was funny, and then in a moment of courage and trust long not shared between siblings in our house, I told her I was not making fun of her, that I asked her because I was gay, or at least had the feelings. She looked directly at me, pausing for about 5 seconds, the remnants of her growing-out, hairsprayed bangs hanging in her face as she scrutinized me and my possible motives, and then said quickly and simply "OK. I am too." We both laughed suddenly and simultaneously, and then just looked at each other for a long time, something like the look Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross shared in the final scene of The Graduate, on the public bus heading somewhere, the track of life suddenly wrenched away.
But it wasn't totally wrenched away, not yet anyway. I went off to BYU, and then incredibly, on a mission to Atlanta, Georgia. I was very carefully walking a line that consisted of an elaborate set of cosmic explanations and spiritual justifications for the entire situation. I was convinced that everything was going to work out fine in my life, wife, children, and gay feelings --unnacted upon of course, but present only to assist me in my empathic, slightly saviour-like mission to humanity.
But Alicia's life wasn't going in quite the same, neatly packaged, way. At the end of her senior year, it was publicly discovered that she had a crush on one of her popular, pretty girlfriends, and her new triumphant world, finally and so carefully constructed after years of feeling like an outsider, came crumbling down around her. There were parties she was turned away from, with the rejection "no dykes allowed", and behavior that ranged from chilly avoidance to total ostracism from her closest friends, including and especially, the friend whom she loved. Isolated and mortified, she developed an almost immediate, and immediately destructive relationship with alcohol, and even though her church feelings were rapidly and drastically falling off, she impulsively escaped to Provo, Utah to attend UVSC to make a new beginning.
There one night, in a moment of lonely desperation, in the Glenwood Apartments, surrounded by an army of both eager and bitter mid-twenties Mormon girls, she attempted suicide. She landed, after an all night ordeal in the emergency room getting her stomach pumped, in the Utah Valley Medical Center Psychiatric Ward. Upon her release she decided to stay a few months more in Provo to get back on her feet, a recovery that some might compare to a band-aid over a gaping wound. Finally, after UVSC had billed my parents for actually the second continuous semester of school unattended, she moved home to the valley, and then eventually to Seattle where her alcohol addiction and chaotic depression began to consume her.
Finally she told our very alarmed but oblivious mother about her sexuality, who at this point had been defending Alicia from rumors being spread at Church or around town. They were sitting in the antique movie theatre chairs that line the underground levels of the famed Pike Street Market in Seattle. Mom was over visiting, trying to maintain some sort of contact and therefore trying pull from her past and look cool with everything, and Alicia was on acid.
"Mom, I think I'm going to start dating women."
"Do you think that will make you happy?"
"I don't know."
It was during this time that the Allreds returned from their three years service as Mission Presidents in South America. They hadn't been at their son's funeral. President Allred had had heart problems during the mission and they had come back to the states for an operation several months before Garth died. They said their good byes then. Now they were home and settling into that strange role in the ward, that of visiting dignitaries who continue to show up every week. One Sunday in the hallway at church in an uncharacteristic and desperate attempt to ask for help in private matters, Mom approached Garth's mother, Marilyn.
"Marilyn, can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Of course Jan."
After some friendly talk, Mom began, slowly.
"Um our daughter, Alicia, is saying she's a lesbian. We're not sure how to handle the
Sister Allred was giving her a broad, frozen-smile stare. Mom continued, more awkwardly.
"I mean I thought since you've dealt with..."
She stopped, sensing the undeniable wrongness.
Finally Marlilyn responded,
"Are you talking about my Garth, Jan? My Garth wasn't gay. To tell
you the truth Jan, I don't like to think of Garth as gone. He's still with me."
At this point Mom said she remembered nothing more, just somehow melting back into the periphery without further exchange - getting reabsorbed by the slow, steady stream of traffic moving towards relief society.
But the experience turned out to be more than one of the countless, awkward conversations my mother and father had in that church hallway over the years. It was so shocking and disturbing that it put something in motion, something that only took form I believe because of the courageous and some might say radical nature of my mother and father. Eventually it would change not only their relationship to the church and religion, but ultimately the course of our very lives.
During Christmas vacation 1995, halfway through my sophomore year at BYU, and only 5 months after returning from what was considered my extremely successful mission, my meticulously assembled straight and narrow path, totally fell apart. On New Year's Eve, confused and taking refuge with Alicia and Rachel in Seattle who were now firmly established as the strident, non-church, urban members of the family, I met a man at Alicia's "Queer and Clear" New Year's Eve dance, sponsored by Alcoholics Anonymous, and went home with him.
I actually didn't violate any of my obsessively specific rules intended to allow me to experiment without jeopardizing my temple recommend, but I did wake up that first day of 1996 knowing two things: I was definitely gay, and I was going to live a gay life. The person lying next to me, in that Belltown studio apartment under the monorail, was a Jewish guy from New York City with a shaved head and 5 years of sobriety. Surrounded by startlingly white sheets and the grey, peculiar, mid-morning light found only in a Seattle winter, it was the brightest, clearest moment of my life. I drove home to the valley that day in a haze of what would be the euphoria of short-lived love and the donning reality that I was 21 years old, and about to jump off the edge of a life that I thought would be secure for eons of time, well beyond even my death. I decided I would carry my secret back to BYU and not tell Mom and Dad for at least another semester, to give myself some time to think everything through. I lasted about two days.
I told Mom first. It was morning and I could hear her from my old bedroom, vacated for my visit, reading the paper downstairs in the living room. I could hear pages turning. I descended the stairs like they were a long, impossibly dark tunnel, my arms groping each wall for support as I focussed on the cloudy light of the permanently smudged living room window. When I saw her I watched her for a moment, and then told her simply and directly. She looked at me with the impassive stare of a dead woman. Needless to say she was not that surprised, and the conversation did not go well.
Had I been anyone else's child, coming to her for support, she would have been my underdog, rogue champion, and the most compassionate and empathetic of listeners. But I wasn't another person's child. I was hers, and from my earliest memory I had been trained with my special role in the family. As the golden boy, I new my job very clearly. Prove to the world that my mother, even if she was idiosyncratic and some might say selfish and a little lax, was a success. In some way my life mission, to prove that I was the best, in an unassuming, self-deprecating way of course, was to prove that she was too. My failure, was really her failure, her moment of being stripped of her chance for vindication. She would have to mourn her future, before she could think of mourning mine.
After a lot of yelling and crying on both our parts, Garth came up.
"I know I made you over-identify with him." She snaps. "I never should have done that."
"You didn't Mom. You were trying to make me feel normal. You just mentioned him a few times."
There was something though. I had found myself thinking about him more and more, like there was something unfinished, something eerie and unsettling about his situation and mine. It was like when you hear those genealogy-obsessed Mormons (every ward has their share) talk during their testimonies about how their dead is somehow contacting them from the other side; how they're being urged on to "finish their work"? I started to have that kind of feeling about Garth. He needed his work done in some way. He hadn't been able to finish his life. He hadn't had the acceptance and acknowledgement he needed. Could something be done vicariously? I decided to find out more about him.
I told my father the next night. He reacted calmly and supportively. In the most previous few years, dealing with the events of his own life, and some very sobering ones in his family, he had seemed to undergo a shift of some kind. He seemed to look at life more with curiosity than with judgement, and exhibited almost an excitement about new experiences. His view of growth-enhancing choices suddenly expanded to a broad, roomy amount, and his countenance sometimes shined with a kind, almost sage-like quality. He also had a rule about utterly respecting the choices of his adult children. During our talk he warned me of how difficult my experience in the Church would be, asked me several surprisingly and touchingly normal questions about the guy I met, and wished me well.
* * * * * *
Four months later, April 1996, I was finishing up my sophomore year at BYU and heading to Seattle for the summer to live with two of my sisters, Alicia (sober a year and a half) and Rachel. One of the reasons I was going was to find some information about Garth.
One day on campus I was hanging around the south entrance of the Lee library with the other remotely "alternative" people, trying out my new, illegally long and bleached-out hair and retro clothes. My best friend Heather, herself in a mini-mini skirt and in the habit of praying to Heavenly Mother, introduced me to her friend Jeremy. He was a nice, goofy kid, and in any other American college setting I would have instantly assumed he was a stoner. I was too new however in that surprisingly large and diverse underground community on campus to know that that was exactly what he was. The next two years of school would effectively eliminate any remaining naivete I had about BYU.
After a few casual exchanges, we got talking about our missions, one of the standard openers. Remarkably I found out he served in South America under Hank Allred. I asked him if he remembered them coming back to the states for a period of time for health reasons.
"Yeah, they were gone for awhile."
"When they came back did he ever say anything about a son?"
"Yeah actually, he said that they said good bye to their son who was dying of cancer?"
"Cancer?" I'm sure I said the word far too loudly and abruptly, with a horrified look on my face.
"Yeah." He said in a somewhat startled yet still cluelessly stoned way. "Why?"
I paused for a long moment and then said slowly
"Because he didn't die of cancer . . . he died of AIDS."
We looked at each other again.
"Was he a fag?" He said it without even a hint of awareness of the lack of respect.
"Yeah." I said simply, too stunned and disturbed for one of my militant anti-gay lectures.
"Yeah he was."
* * * * * *
It was the last month of living in Seattle, summer 1996. The summer had flown by, Alicia, Rachel and I living together in a huge dilapidated blue house perched directly and precariously high above interstate 5 in the Wallingford District. The three of us had formed a group of sorts, a threesome who would somehow keep each other alive for years to come; the gregarious, covertly controlling gay older brother, the excessive, secretive lesbian sister, and the maternal, intense, mostly-straight diva sister, given lately to wearing black latex. We were best friends who could be the life of any party, but who would resort to ferocious viciousness at a moments notice and in anyone's company.
I'd spent the summer learning how to be gay in a big gay-friendly city,
and preparing to return to Utah and BYU, to begin my crusade for public
awareness and acceptance. I'd also spent the summer looking for news
of Garth. I couldn't find a trace of him. I had put an add in the Seattle
Gay News, and the Affirmation newsletter. I didn't get any response.
I'd talked to tons of people; even a few strangers on the street who
looked vaguely similar to him, without any luck. Finally, the man from
the Gay News, a nervous, bored looking man cooped up in a tiny,
paper stacked office, had grown sympathetic to my utter failures and
had begun expertly checking around in that insider way. One day he called
and told me Garth's name was listed in the AIDS Scrapbook. I couldn't
find any names listed to contact, but the mortuary was listed and I
found out where he was buried.
"Alicia, I know where he's buried. Will you come with me?"
The man at the funeral home at the cemetery knew right where the gravestone is. "I remember him, very nice fellow, came up and picked it out himself." We found it under a tree in a grassy corner by the path. I saw his name: GARTH HAROLD ALLRED. The middle name struck me as painful and ironic, his father's name. In my mind it was the father who wasn't at his son's funeral and who told people he died of cancer. Then I saw the epitaph:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
I was startled to read what struck me as such a personal message, and even more startled at how moved I was. Then, after a few more moments it dawned on me. In some way it felt like he was talking to me. He was telling me what I couldn't find a single living person to tell me, that he understood who he was, that he didn't hate himself. He knew he was good. He knew God accepted him, that he was noble. Why was his heart broken? Of course I knew the answer. And then the angels coming to take him home. It struck me as hopeful, and somehow Mormon.
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. - Shakespeare
I glanced up and noticed that Alicia had intuitively wandered away to give me some space, and I watched her browse through the gravestones respectfully--her head freshly shaved and a Parliament Light freshly lit. She had always blended a peculiar mixture of angry, cynical irreverence with a deep respect for human tradition and dignity. I began to think about our lives, the hopes and dreams of our child hoods, and our futures. At how different things had turned out for us, so much loss and confusion, mixed with so many new choices we were never trained to maneuver. I wondered suddenly as I watched my sister wander solemnly around the cemetery if, frankly, either of us would make it. It was a thought that had begun to creep into my head late at night, a vague hopelessness I'd never felt before. I usually chased it away with grandiose plans of changing the Church. But it would come back.
I thought about our parents, and felt a moment of gratitude. While not perfect by any means, they instilled in us, along with religion, a fierce sense of individualism. Mom and Dad by this time had made the huge and courageous decision to put the love of their children before any church doctrine or policy. Dad had called me one night a couple months before, after reading the memoirs of a Mormon father whose son had also died of AIDS, and who had felt that it could have been prevented if he had understood sooner and provided a more stable support system. Dad was calling to tell me that he admired me for trying to sort through my feelings openly and carefully before leaving the Church, and for trying to stand up for myself as a gay Mormon. He felt it was an honest and courageous approach. He said he trusted me and my abilities to think and make choices, and that he would be supportive of whatever course in life I would take. He said that he felt that we were alike in that way.
"In what way Dad?" I asked, not quite sure what he was referring to.
He paused for a moment and said,
"We both love truth more than we fear it."
I tell people that now, that my dad and I are alike.
For Mom it was harder. It took her awhile to let go of the dreams that she had for Alicia and I. It took her awhile to realize that the situation was not about her, that these were our lives, not something for which she was somehow to blame. Finally she understood, was dreaming new dreams, and realizing that they were still good ones. She was the one that had of course taught us that being different was OK, and had filled our heads with stories of her rebellious non-conformist youth in cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, and Rexburg, Idaho. Stories that always seemed to contain the essential plot twist of an escape in a red Volkswagen bug and a sunroof. At first of course she was very threatened; she'd actually raised her eleven Mormon children with brazen eccentricity, against the warnings of Mormon friends and relief society leaders, and then feared her way may have actually been wrong after all. What she didn't know was that what she and Dad had been instilling in us may have been the very thing that would save us.
The entire family had been impacted by these events, and I think by my parents' reaction. No one had to choose sides in our house. We were all united in it. Alicia and I were allowed to tell the younger kids during our family trip that summer, without even their presence. They let us to it on our own terms, Alicia, Rachel and I, and 4 young girls on a sunny, ruthlessly windy beach on the Washington coast, ages 14 to 8. Alicia and I were trying to do it in a positive, slightly delicate way, and of course Rachel was there to set things straight for them.
"There nothing wrong with being gay, OK? Absolutely nothing. It's just the same as being straight. Just forget about what they told you at church."
The little girls took it all in stride though, even got excited, saying "You guys are gay?! You mean like in the movie Clueless? Cool!" If they had learned anything in the family it was adaptability, and the normalization of much more bizarre experiences. Very shortly they would learn what it meant to stand up for us in the most surprising situations.
My relationship with my brother was better than it ever was, and he even named his son John Samuel after me, which touched and surprised me. The 11 kids, or the older ones of course, were spiraling into a number of different directions, I'm sure nothing like my parents would have ever imagined. But somehow everything was ok, somehow accepted and included, in that loving, chaotic, sort of preoccupied way of course.
As I stood over Garth's grave, I began to think about people who let an authoritative ideology alleviate them from personal responsibility. About the Allreds, how they probably thought that the tragedy was that their son's 'going astray from the Gospel' had led to his death, when actually the tragedy was much deeper--that their denial of him, may have contributed to it. I thought about my own ingrained fear, that I would contract AIDS myself as a punishment for my sins, that this disease comes to those who are gay because being gay is evil. I wondered if it could possibly be just a disease, not a moral indictment, and thought about the irony that the disease actually preys on those most marginalized or vulnerable, without the support of societies that condemn, or ignore them.
I stood there looking down at his gravestone, sorting through the flood of thoughts, still quite convinced that I'm there to help him, rather than myself. I realized suddenly and strangely that I was going to speak to him. I hesitated for a moment, looking around and feeling foolish, and then began. My voice sounding too loud and intrusive, like when you first wake up in the morning, or have been crying.
"Garth, you may not remember me. I'm Jan Clayton's son. I'm here with Alicia, who is my sister and Jan's oldest daughter. We're both gay, Garth. I just wanted you to know that you were wonderful friends with a Mormon woman who had two gay children. She's sorry Garth. She knows you wanted to tell her. I wanted you to know that she accepts us. She accepts her kids the way we are. My Dad does too. And you had a part in that.
"I acknowledge you Garth, that you were gay and a Mormon, and I won't speak about you like you weren't, or like it's such a shame. I don't know if you'd still be here if people could have accepted, if your family could have supported. I can't help but feel that so many would still be living if people didn't have to grow up hating themselves and living in secret. The truth is that I grew up that way too. Maybe that's why I'm here. I feel funny actually, saying all this to you. I tracked you down because I thought you needed me to complete something for you, and now I realize maybe I'm here for me, for a chance I guess. Thank you for that."
I paused for a long time, wondering if I was finished.
"We'll live Garth" I said suddenly, startled at the conviction in my voice, "and tell them that we're good people."
Then I stopped, and looked up to see Alicia making her way carefully toward me.