I attended an event here in Chiang Mai last week that brought together many acquaintances from years past. One Thai fellow about my age from Los Angeles wanted to know how things were going with me. In the course of our conversation it became clear he hadn’t heard about my “changes of orientation, and my Thai spouse” so I filled him in. He never missed a beat, flicked an eyebrow, or registered the least surprise. It isn’t always thus.
One of the unfair things about being LGBT is that we’re never completely finished “coming out” of the closet. There’s always somebody else who doesn’t know, and we have learned we can never be sure how they will react.
I was reminded of one of my bigger surprises in this regard.
Ricky was HIV+ at age 12. He was infected by tainted blood he received as a hemophiliac. I was asked by two of our church members to let them hold a fund-raising event in our church for Ricky.
That’s how it started.
Ricky’s church was a large, fundamentalist, blue-collar congregation in the refinery and steel-mill district. They dis-invited Ricky and his family when members protested. 4 or 5 of us clergy formed an ad-hoc advocacy group to try to get better information about HIV-AIDS to churches in the area. We were signed on as an aspect of the state’s Department of Children and Family Services to provide religious resources and help when called on. Joyce was the social worker who took care of us. We became a headline program in her annual reports.
Over the next 2 or 3 years we met, conducted worship services for people living with HIV-AIDS, visited patients in hospitals if the patients were open to a visit, and sometimes conducted their funerals. Joyce was tireless.
When the program closed and Joyce lost her job. She was first out of work, then homeless with a young daughter. For weeks Joyce came to me to get help of various kinds. She and I considered it an accomplishment that we managed to keep her off the street, homeless as she was. And then she met Matt. Matt was a dentist and a religious skeptic. After almost a year, Matt and Joyce decided to get married. They asked me to officiate. It was a very small wedding. We laughed about how nice it was that Joyce and her daughter weren’t threatened with living on the street anymore. She fervently declared that I had saved her life more than once. That confirmed she had been suicidal, as I had intuited.
Shortly after that I left the area but Joyce sent notes about her new life and the fact that she and Matt were taking instruction to join the Greek Orthodox Church.
Over the next 6 years my life underwent radical change. I admitted I was bi-sexual on the gay end of the spectrum, changed jobs to avoid battles with the church it would have been too early to win, and made other major adjustments.
One day I happened to be back in the area having a large cookie in a shopping mall when Joyce came through. She greeted me like a beloved uncle and when she asked about my life I told her the headlines. I was still nervous about coming out to most people but I didn’t hesitate because Joyce and I had been through a lot.
It was probably three months later that I heard from her. I’d come back to Thailand and she sent a Christmas card with a letter in it.
“I am shocked,” she said. “I had no idea you were succumbing to this. Matt and I have talked to our priest about whether our marriage is valid since it was conducted by a fraudulent minister who could not be anointed by the Holy Spirit. Of course, Matt and I want no further contact with you.”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.