I can remember the disgust I felt when I saw the cartoon on the opinion page. It ran alongside an editorial against gays in the military. The picture was of a line of soldiers marching along, and their name tags all said "Gay." All but the last one. He wasn't a person, just a skeleton in a uniform. His name tag read "AIDS."
I don't have AIDS. I'm not even HIV positive. But I have friends who are PWA's, or People with AIDS, and I have other friends who are gay and in the military. I was angry, not just for them, but for me. As a lesbian, I was as much a target as everyone else in the community, whether I was military, HIV, or not. I put the paper down, feeling helpless.
Just thinking about the cartoon made me angry, and the anger made my stomach hurt. That's typical of this town, I thought. It'll never change.
The city seemed to be under the power of Rush Limbaugh. The conservative talk show host, who I thought was a jerk, even had several dining rooms named after him all around town. People would gather in them to watch his show, and then repeat whatever he'd said. Personally, the guy made me ill.
But this town was crazy over him, and we even had our own radio jerk that was just like Limbaugh. This guy would bring on liberal speakers from out of town who had no idea what they were in for and proceed to tear them apart on the air. Since he had control of the phone panel, and everyone was asked what their question was before they were put on the air, the only listeners who got through to talk were the conservative "ditto-heads" that would help the host rip the guest apart. I always wondered if the guest actually walked to his car, or had to be carried out.
I'd never realized just how conservative this town was until I started reading the editorial page of our only newspaper. I checked the history of the paper for a journalism class I was taking, and found out that the paper had never once supported civil rights. In the sixties, it had blasted the Civil Rights Bill, and encouraged petitions against it. According to one of the editorials, "if colored people don't have jobs, it's because they don't want to work. Who wants to hire a lazy Negro?" Any other paper would have been burned to the ground for something like that, but it was such an accurate display of the city's feelings that no one really cared. Everyone else in the nation had enough to do keeping up with the south; who cared what was happening at a small town newspaper in the west.
Our state had just passed an amendment that took away the rights of a minority group. That became the last straw for me, and I joined a gay political group devoted to civil rights for everyone, with no regard to color, race, religion, physical or mental disability, sex, or sexual orientation. I tried hard to keep up with events, but really hadn't done any more than go to the general meetings, and a couple fundraisers. It wasn't that I didn't agree with what they were doing, I just didn't know what I could do to help.
There was a general meeting at the office that night. I climbed the three flights of wooden stairs to the office at the end of the hall. It was a small room in a small building. There were two windows, and since one of them stretched onto a part of the roof, the smokers usually sat outside of or next to the open window. There were never enough chairs, so people sat on tables and on the floor. One of the younger dykes had climbed to the top of the file cabinet. Normally these meetings were pretty simple and quick; people gave reports on what their committees were doing, and the group either approved or didn't. There was a report from the treasurer, and then we'd break up. By the time the meetings were over everyone was tired from the heat.
I looked for Tina like I always did. She was near the back, sitting on a table top, and propping the wall up with her back. She waved for me to join her, then pushed Julie over to make room.
"Girlfriend, we are in for trouble tonight."
"Why, what's up?"
"Did you see the paper today?"
She stared at me. "Did you read the op-ed page?"
"The opinion page! Did you read it?"
"Yeah, but what . . . oh. The cartoon."
"Yeah, the cartoon. Sam's been on a rampage all day. I don't think this is going to be a regular meeting -- at -- all."
It looked like she was right. Sam was there, and he was fired up. I could see the newspaper in his hand, and I thought about the cartoon.
After the preliminaries, Sam said he wanted to talk. Everyone knew he was steamed and not many people had ever seen Sam get angry. They were quiet. For a moment he just stared at the table.
"Did everybody see the editorial cartoon today?"
A few people murmured yes, others just nodded.
"I hope he goes impotent, the little homophobe." That brought a chuckle to the room. Melissa, our resident drag queen, and proud of it, was settling back in her chair. Sam looked at her and tried to smile.
"What are we going to do about it?"
"Well? Any suggestions?"
"Did anybody call the paper?"
Sam bristled. "I did. I even spoke to the artist, Don Atwater."
"What did he say?"
"Nothing. He just laughed at me over the phone."
Suddenly it wasn't just Sam who was angry.
"Yeah, he laughed. Then he hung up on me. For some
reason he didn't seem to care." Sam slapped the paper on the table. The sound
made me jump.
"So, I repeat, what are we going to do about it?"
I looked around the room. People were avoiding looking at Sam. They looked uncomfortable.
"Well, come on, people." Melissa's face was almost as red as her dress. "Say something. We can't just let this limp dick get away with this."
"What do you suggest, Melissa?"
"Honey, I suggest we moon-at-noon him. But no one ever agrees with me."
People were positively laughing and even Sam was smiling now.
I noticed Helen was watching the crowd. Then she stood up.
"I have some ideas. I met with my committee before coming here. We thought something should be done as well. We're prepared for action."
Sam looked pleased. "What's your idea, Helen?"
"We actually came up with a couple. The first one is that we spray all of the paper boxes in town with fake blood."
There was a general groan throughout the room. Only Sam smiled.
"I think this town, and this group, is just a little too conservative for that. The second idea?"
Helen frowned. "I don't think you'll like it much better. We were planning on going over to the Evening Gazette and paint the word homophobia on the side."
There was another groan. Julie stood up. "Wait a minute. I think it's a good idea. It's immediate, it's a demonstration, and it's non-destructive. And if we follow it up with a literature campaign, it will at least make people think. If we get vocal enough, there might even be a retraction in the paper."
Bruce laughed at that. "How long have you been in this city, Julie?"
Sam stopped the general laughter in the room. "Well, we have a proposal on the floor from the Action committee. I take it, Julie, that you second this proposal?"
Julie nodded. "Absolutely."
"Discussion?" Sam really didn't want to ask the question, I could tell.
It led where I thought it would. The proposal was defeated, by six votes. Sam looked positively grim. Tina was cussing under her breath.
"Do we have any other proposals?"
There was general silence in the room. Then Theresa stood up. "Look, Sam, I was upset about the cartoon as well. But is it really worth fighting the paper? Atwater just cranks out what everyone in this city feels. Do you really want to take on this town over another issue? Haven't we got enough on our hands with the battle over the Amendment?"
I could see heads shaking all over the room. I was close to joining them. Tina was looking angrier by the second. Sam sighed.
"Theresa, I'd love to let this thing drop. But I can't. I've lived in this city for 12 years, and I've never felt as angry with it as I do tonight. It's one thing to make a decision, or hold a political position. It's another thing to take shots at a group of people because of an illness."
Theresa frowned. "But, Sam..."
"Besides, do you really think what the paper does and says has no effect? People believe the crap that rag prints. They read it, and act on what they've read. If we don't do anything, they'll just keep printing stuff like this and then you'll have the violence against PWA's skyrocketing. And Atwater won't stop there. He's done cartoons like this before, only not as obvious. The paper has written editorials against us before, and if we don't act, they'll do it again. And again. Until the violence isn't just against the people with AIDS, but against everyone in our community, everyone in this very room. You think you're safe, Theresa? Just because I have AIDS and you don't doesn't mean they won't come after you."
Sam was almost out of breath. Bobby, his lover, was pulling him into a chair.
I don't know exactly what made me do what I did. Maybe I was just tired of sitting quietly. Maybe Sam's speech had struck a chord. All I knew was I suddenly standing. Eyebrows were raised as I began to speak.
"I'm with Sam. This town needs some shaking up. Atwater needs to know we're not going to sit on our hands while he spreads hate and fear through his pictures. Maybe striking the building isn't a good idea. But we have to do something to protest this."
At first there was silence, and I almost sat down
again. But Tina stood up beside me, and put her hand on my shoulder. "Rae's
right. We have to protest."
Helen stood up.
"Protest! Excellent idea. We could do a non-violent protest in front of the Nazi Gazette."
Slowly the idea caught on.
"The Gazette's building is downtown..."
"If we make enough noise, we might even bring out some cameras..."
"We could have people with signs saying..."
"I think a march is a great..."
When the idea of a protest was brought to a vote, it passed, with only three people against. We spent the rest of the evening trying to put the pieces together. It was agreed Sam would make all press statements. I surprised everyone, including Tina and myself, and agreed to be a peacekeeper. The protest was to be held that Friday, at noon, so there would be plenty of people around. That gave us Wednesday and Thursday to prepare.
Helen was specifically told that there would be no fake blood. She frowned. "The committee will be so disappointed."
Melissa caught Tina and me on our way out the door.
"Have a drink with me, girls?"
"Sure." Tina sounded twice as enthused as I felt. "At the Peak? I've been dying for a beer."
"The Peak. Sounds good. I'll meet you there."
I tapped Tina's arm. "Hey, I think I'm just gonna head home. Stuff to do tomorrow and all."
"Oh, no. You're going with me. You can sleep late tomorrow, and get everything done in the afternoon. Tonight, I'm buying the beer."
"No arguing." She pulled my car keys out of my hand.
"Okay. But not the Peak. Anyplace but the Peak."
"What's wrong with the Peak?"
"Nothing . . . I just . . ."
She grinned. "Oh, yeah. J.J. hangs out there." She looked around at the people leaving. "Where was she tonight, anyway?"
I couldn't look at her. "There was a pool tournament."
Tina laughed. "The Peak. That's final."
She headed out the door with my keys, and I had no choice but to follow.
The Peak was a country-western bar on the West side of town. Although it was originally meant to be a men's bar, the women moved in quickly, and before anyone knew it, the bar was a mixture of men and women, straight and gay alike. It was kind of like stepping into a foreign world where nobody cared who you fell in love with. We thought of it as a refuge from the rest of our city.
Tina slammed her door and waited for me to get out. When I didn't move, she came around and leaned halfway through the window.
"What's up, girlfriend?"
I shook my head. "Are you really going to make me go in there?"
"No. You can stay out here in the truck if you want. But you'll miss out on the fun."
I just sat there.
"What is it, Rae? Are you afraid to face J.J.?"
"Not afraid, really, just . . .nervous."
"Why? J.J.'s cool. If you have to have a crush, at least you picked the right person."
"Yeah. I like J.J. And I happen to know that she - likes - you."
"I suppose you told her that I have a crush?"
"Hell no. Didn't have to. She knew from the way you never come close enough to talk to her. She thinks it's cute."
"So, what's the problem? You know she's here, you can see her cycle by the wall. Just go in and talk."
"I -- I can't."
"Well, she's -- just -- she's --"
"She just seems . . . I don't know. Dangerous."
Tina grinned. "I know. And she is. That's why you like her so much."
Melissa was waiting for us in a corner booth. She was lazily eyeing the bartender, Mike, who was eyeing her right back.
"Hey, Mike, two beers for my friends over here!" Mike grinned, and waved.
"So, Melissa, how do you think the meeting went?"
Melissa frowned. "Those people are almost as conservative as Republicans."
"Most of them are Republicans. They're just gay Republicans," I said.
"I know that, but do they have to act like those of us who have AIDS are lepers? For Chrissakes, we're the same as them."
"Easy, 'Lissa. We know how you feel." Tina patted her on the hand.
"Do you, Tina?" The look in Melissa's eyes was sad. Her gaze locked with Tina's and they stared at one another for a moment.
Mike came up with the beer just then. He slowly set them down in front of Tina and me, and then placed a glass of white wine in front of Melissa.
"For you, milady."
"Why, Michael! Thank you! How can I ever pay you back?"
Mike grinned. "I get off in 30 minutes. We could talk about it over another drink -- at my place?"
Melissa smiled. "I thought you'd never get around to asking."
Mike leaned over and kissed her, then sauntered back to the bar.
Melissa watched him go, sighing. "Oh, what great buns. Ah, well." She looked at Tina and winked. "I could probably get a date for you, Tina, and we could double."
"No thanks, 'Lissa. I have this thing about 3 legged people... they just don't fit in my bed."
"By the way. Mike smeared your lipstick."
Melissa looked horrified. "He did? Oh, God." She whipped out her compact and looked closely at her image. "He did!" She stood up. "Excuse me, girls, but I've gotta do some repair work. Be right back!"
Tina watched her head for the men's room, and she laughed. "I love playing with 'Lissa." She turned to me. "You doing okay?"
"Yeah, right. You look like your whole face is gonna fall into your beer. What's up?"
I glanced at Melissa's wine glass. "Tina, you don't think... I mean... he's not gonna..." I nodded at Mike. "...you know."
She looked puzzled. "No, I don't know, what are you talking about?" She followed my gaze over to Mike, and then looked at Melissa's wine glass. "Oh. I got it. Yeah, they'll probably go to Mike's place and do what the animals do."
I shook my head. "But, Tina, Melissa has ... he's got AIDS."
"So? What does that matter?"
"Should he really be --"
"Rae, haven't you heard of safe sex?"
"Of course, but --"
"No but's. Around here it's safe sex, or no sex. And believe me, Melissa knows how important that is."
I nodded, and started peeling the label off my beer.
"By the way. It's not 'he'."
"You were calling 'Lissa 'he'. It's she."
I stared at her. "But, Tina, he's..."
"In drag tonight. Any time a crossdresser is in drag, they become that sex, and that's how they should be referred to."
"Oh. I see."
Tina grinned. "Poor Rae. You really need an education."
Melissa dropped down onto the seat. "Rae needs an education? Oooh. Can I give it to her?"
Tina shrugged. "Be my guest. I'm gonna go dance." She stood up. "If I'm not back before you're ready to leave, then come get me." She started toward the dance floor, but then stopped. "Hey, Rae . . . J.J.'s playing pool. I'm sure she'd love for you to chalk up her cue."
She left with a grin, and I sat alone with Melissa and a red-face.
"So, Rae, what do you need an education on?"
I kept peeling my beer label. "Oh, community. Jargon. Things like that."
"Oh. Like, how to properly address a drag queen?"
I could feel my face turning as red as a radish. Melissa laughed.
"Don't worry, girlfriend, everyone goes through it. You're just in a baby-dyke phase. It'll pass."
"I guess. But I wish it would pass a little faster."
Melissa laughed again and finished her wine. I finished peeling the label. It had come off in one piece. Only the glue was left on the bottle.
"Hey, that's good luck, girlfriend. That's a fuck-tab."
"Huh? What's a which?"
"That label. When you peel the label off a beer bottle and it comes off in one piece, it's called a fuck-tab."
"Okay." I must have still looked a little puzzled, because Melissa leaned forward, this flabbergasted look on her painted face.
"You've never heard of a fuck-tab?"
"No. Enlighten me."
"If you happen to have one of those lucky labels, you find someone who you're hot for and give it to them. "
"Oh." I waited. So did she. "And then what?"
There was something just a little devilish in her grin. "Then you go to their place and have really hot sex with them."
My ears were on fire. "You're kidding."
She shook her head. "Babydykes. I luv'em."
Mike got a break from the bar a couple of minutes later. He and Melissa were soon on the dance floor, staring into each other's eyes. Feeling strange by myself at the table, I went to the bar. I had just finished my beer when the new bartender put a fresh bottle in front of me.
"I didn't order this," I tried to say. He pointed over my shoulder. Before I could turn around, J.J. was sitting on the stool beside me.
"Hey, J.J." She was only a few feet from me, and I could smell the mix of cologne and leather. I glanced at her just enough to see that she was in blue jeans and a leather vest.
My face was already hot.
"I just passed 'Lissa on the dance floor. She said you had something for me."
I looked up at her, puzzled. "She did?"
"Yeah. She said it was something I should ask for, because you'd be too scared to give it to me."
The heat was spreading out from my face. I knew what 'Lissa had meant.
"It's nothing. You don't really want it anyway."
She shifted on her stool, and I could hear the creak of her leather. "How would you know whether or not I want it? You never asked me."
"I just don't think you would."
"Well, why don't you let me decide?"
I could see Tina and 'Lissa watching from the table. If I didn't give it to her, I'd get razzed for weeks. I pulled the beer label out of my pocket and put it on the bar. Then I just stared at my beer and waited.
J.J. reached down and picked it up. Neither of us spoke as she turned it over and over in her hand.
"So. Do you want to give this to me?"
I took a swallow of beer and nearly choked. J.J. slapped me on the back till I stopped coughing. When I glanced up she was grinning.
"What are you laughing about?"
"Me? I'm not laughing. I'm just . . . ah. . .
"Laughing." I wiped my mouth. "I hate it when people laugh at me."
"Yeah, me too. Now, can I have this?"
I shrugged, still wiping beer from my shirt. "If you want it, it's yours."
"Cool." She folded it in half and put it in her wallet. Then she grinned at me. "Don't worry, I won't forget that it's there, or who gave it to me."
My face was getting red again.
"Listen, I have to go out of town till Friday. How about we do something when I get back?"
She pulled out a pen and slid a clean napkin to me. "Write your number on this, and I'll call you when I get back. "
J.J. slid my number in next to the beer label. She finished her beer and put her wallet in her back pocket. Then she grabbed my collar and kissed me. When I opened my eyes, she grinned, and was gone.
The scent of leather was still in the air when Tina came up and tapped my shoulder. "Am I too late to rescue you?"
I couldn't think clearly. "Rescue me from what?"
"From J.J. She's dangerous, remember?"
"Tina, I've decided I like danger."
As we walked out I could see J.J. warming up her bike in the corner of the parking lot. I noticed her watching me, and turned away quickly.
As TIna climbed into her truck and started the motor, I hugged Melissa. She squeezed me really tight. Then she held me at arm's length and looked at me.
"You know something, Rae?"
"You'd look great in drag."
I broke out laughing and stammered that she'd never get me into a dress.
She laughed with me. "Silly, girls in dresses aren't in drag. But dykes in tuxedos... Now that's drag."
"Are you saying I'd look good in a tux?"
Tina leaned out the window. "Rae, come on."
I headed for the passenger door.
"Tina, don't you think Rae would look great in a tux?"
J.J. came cruising up on the Tina's side of the car. She stopped behind Melissa.
"Well, I just think she should come out for lesbian drag once in a while. She'd look wonderful in a tuxedo," Melissa said.
J.J. interrupted. "Of course, with those buns of hers, she'd look even better with nothing. Ciao, gang." She roared off.
Melissa was standing with a hand over her mouth. I slammed the door and told Tina to step on it. She laughed all the way back to my car. She was still laughing when I got out and drove home.
The night before the protest there was a meeting of the peacekeepers at Riki's, a downtown cafe. The people there were part of the liberal crowd, and several were wearing "Straight But Not Narrow" t-shirts, or buttons that said "No one knows I'm gay." It was a great place to be if you wanted to be social in a serious manner.
We were there to discuss basic techniques of peacekeeping. What are the best methods of diffusing a situation, and the rules for being a peacekeeper: no touching the person, always work in a team, never raise your voice, and if there's a fight, let the police take care of the fighters. Our main job was to make sure our marchers didn't get involved in any skirmishes with someone lined up against us. Everyone was saying our security was pretty much just precautionary, but I could tell there was tension beneath the surface. If anything went wrong the next day, the Evening Gazette would have a field day.
Afterwards, I wandered off to my favorite video game, stationed in the back of the cafe. I had never gotten past the sixth level of Tetris, and I was convinced I never would. Once again, I got to the very edge of the sixth level, and died with two rows to go.
I heard someone clapping behind me. When I turned around I found Sam grinning.
"Nice job! You nearly had that last level."
"Yeah, well, nearly doesn't get to the seventh. I've never gotten through that screen."
"Don't worry. You will. You just have to stop fighting with yourself, and do it. Don't even think about it."
"Right. Don't even think about it."
He grinned again. "That's what I always do, anyway."
"How far have you gotten?"
I stared at him for a moment, then we both laughed.
"Have a cup of coffee with me?" he asked.
"I don't drink coffee. It's bad for your health."
"Like I care. Iced tea instead?"
We grabbed one of the smaller tables near the back.
"Tina told me you've got a crush on J.J."
I watched the ice melt in my drink. "Maybe."
"I've known J.J. for a long time. She'll be good for you, Rae."
I nodded, then said, "Tina says she's dangerous."
"Well, I guess she is. In a way. I'm glad she's on our Action Committee. She can be pretty forceful."
"Is she going to be at the rally, do you think?"
"I hope so. Her plane from Chicago gets in Friday morning. She was going to drive right over to the protest."
"How long have you known her?"
"About eight years. She's Bobby's cousin, you know."
"No, I didn't know."
"Yeah. As a matter of fact, she introduced us. At the second March on Washington. J.J.'s quite an activist."
"Why doesn't she go to more of the general meetings?"
Sam laughed. "If she'd been at the last one, she probably would have stormed out half way through. J.J.'s used to real activism, like chaining herself to the gate of the Governor's house. She works with the Action Committee, and tries to keep things stirred up there. But other than that, she stays away so she won't disrupt anything."
I thought about that for a minute while Sam got some lemon for his tea. When he came back he said he wanted to thank me for speaking up at the general meeting.
"No sweat. I just --" I shrugged, "I don't know. Felt like saying something, I guess."
"A lot of people still can't understand why this is so important."
I wasn't sure I understood, but I nodded.
"You know, I wish you'd speak out more often. As a native of this city you have insights we don't have. You know the territory. We could really use you."
I didn't know what to say. "I don't think there's anything I could really do, but thanks, Sam."
"There's a lot you can do. You have good ideas. You could be a leader in this group."
I had to laugh. "Me? Sam, I'm scared of crowds, I don't like to be around a lot of people, and it takes all the courage I have just to walk in the door at the meetings. To use a cliche', I'm scared of my own shadow."
Sam leaned forward. "So am I. So is practically everyone in this organization. The only thing we have that you don't is experience. And you'll get that." He coughed and took a sip of water. Then he started again. "You know what the situation in this town is, right?"
"You know what could happen tomorrow, don't you?"
I hesitated, then nodded. I knew there could be a riot.
"I want you to make a speech at the protest."
I stared at him. "Me?"
"You must be joking. I'd freeze and you'd have to pry the microphone out of my hand."
"I'm serious. Look, as a native you have a louder voice than most of us. People in this town look at us as outsiders. You've read the editorials. They think we're just here to agitate them."
"Sam, you've lived here a dozen years; no one can call you an outsider."
"You know as well as I do they won't listen to me. I've tried. A dozen years is nothing to the older families here. Besides, I'm from California, and they really distrust Californians. But they're likely to listen to you. After all, you've been here all your life."
"Hey, I spent six months away at college."
"Six months gone. And twenty something years in this town."
I looked down at the table.
"Look, I don't want to push you into something you're not ready for..."
"I'm not ready for this."
"All I'm asking is that you think about it. I really believe you'd make a great speaker."
"I'm not ready for this."
He sighed. "Will you at least think about it?"
"Yes. But I'm not ready for this."
"Well, if you change your mind, call me."
"I'll think about it."
"I hope you will."
I said good-bye to Sam, and headed for the door. When I looked back, he was in a coughing fit. Bobby was sitting beside him, looking concerned and rubbing his back.
As I drove home from the restaurant, I followed a big black pick-up truck through the downtown area. As we stopped for a red-light I read their bumper stickers. One of them said "Hitler was right." Another said "White Power." And there was a line of stickers along the top of the tailgate that said "Hang the niggers," "Burn the jews," and "Kill the queers." I could feel a cold spot in the middle of my back. They turned into the parking lot of a bar, and as I passed them I could see the gleaming shaved heads through the windows.
The rest of the way home I kept looking behind me to see if anyone was there.
Friday morning I went down to the office to pick up final instructions for peacekeeping. They were handing out orange and yellow striped vests, and pink hats with black triangles. I put one on and looked at myself in the mirror. Tina came up and looked over my shoulder.
"Cool. You look great. The cameras are going to really pick up that hat."
I froze. "Cameras?"
"Yeah. Sam got Channel 11 to do a story, and, of course, Channel 5 won't be outdone, so they're sending a camera crew, too. It's gonna be great."
Tina slapped me on the back. "Don't worry. It's not like it's going coast to coast. It probably won't even make the early edition. Goddess knows they don't want to waste time talking about a bunch of queers."
For some reason that upset me. "What d'you mean, waste time. This is important, dammit."
Tina's eyes got a little wider. "Hey, chill, girlfriend, I didn't mean I think it's a waste. I was talking about the news guys, that's all."
"Maybe it's about time we made them do a piece on the early news. It's about time they took notice of what's really happening around here." I turned back and stared at the mirror. Was that reflection really me?
Tina shook her head. "It's happening to you, too, girlfriend."
She grinned. "You're becoming an activist."
People were beginning to gather at the office. We were going to start from there and march down to the building that housed the "Evening Gazette." It was almost lunchtime, and the streets were filling up.
Sam found me as I helped load the speakers for the sound system in a car. He was very pale.
"Did you think about what I asked you?"
"Yes. But I really don't think it's a good idea."
"Because, I'm not ready. I'd probably freeze, or say something stupid."
"You are ready, I'll make sure you won't freeze, and everyone says stupid things at times."
"I have no idea what to talk about."
"Sure you do."
"No, I don't. Sam, this is your gig. You're the one they'll listen to. Besides, I don't have AIDS."
He stopped and stared at me. His cheeks darkened, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "You don't get it, do you?"
I didn't say anything.
"I thought you understood, but you don't. Look, it's not about AIDS. It's not about gays in the military, or the Amendment, or even the stupid cartoon, really. It's about you and I being treated as human beings, equal to everyone else. It's about Pat and Cindy being allowed to marry, about Heather not losing her job because she's a lesbian, about Frank and Chuck not being beaten up just because they kissed in the street. It's about being free."
At first I thought he was really angry with me. Then he hugged me, and kissed my cheek.
"You'll understand. Someday you'll get it. Unfortunately, everyone does."
He grinned at me, and then headed for the front of the line. As the main speaker he would be leading the march from the back of a pickup truck. I finished loading the sound system, and rode to the protest site with Tina to help set up. Sam's voice was ringing in my head.
We waited in front of the Gazette for the marchers to get there. It was only four blocks and it didn't take them very long to be in sight. Tina and I looked at each other and grinned. We had expected maybe thirty people. It looked like there might be over sixty.
"Looks good so far," I said.
"Yeah. And it doesn't look like there've been any problems."
"How can you tell?"
"I told Bobby to have the truck's flashers on if there was anything happening."
I looked closely at the truck. The flashers were off.
Bobby pulled up in front of the building and Sam hopped down.
"Any problems?" Tina asked.
"Not really. People stared, some made remarks, but for the most part everything's calm."
"Cool. You better head for the microphone. Rae and I will help get the lines going."
"Don't forget to leave space for the camera crews."
"Got it. Go do your thing, Sam."
The peacekeepers divided everyone into two groups and had each group form two lines. Each line would go back and forth, opposite of each other, just outside the front of the building. We left just enough room between the groups for people to get to the door, but made sure they'd have to squeeze through to get there.
Sam's speech to the press went well. He answered a couple of questions from the camera crews, and they took footage of the marchers. Then they disappeared inside the building. They'd been invited in by the artist, and the editor, so the paper could tell their side. They also had a catered lunch in the air-conditioned office.
The chants started right after Sam's speech. The slogans included "Civil Rights Now" and "We're here, we're queer, get used to it." Pedestrians were re-routed by the police, and drivers that passed by while staring out the window. Some honked, some gave us the finger. But everything was peaceful. The other peacekeepers looked bored.
We'd been there about 45 minutes, and it was almost 1:00 when the truck pulled up. That cold spot appeared in my back again, and I stared as the black pick-up stopped just down the block. I could see the outline of the bumper stickers and the group of guys piling out of the back.
Tina touched my arm and I jumped.
"What's wrong, Rae?"
I pointed down the street to the gang that was approaching. She whispered "Oh, shit, skinheads." Then she was off, nearly sprinting down the steps. I saw her grab Sam's arm, and he turned. Then Tina was off to alert all the peacekeepers, and Sam went to talk to the police.
The baiting started a few minutes later. The police
made sure the hecklers stayed on their side of the street, but we could still
hear their words. One of them pulled a small bible out of his ripped up denim
jacket and began quoting. The cry went up that we were abominations. God had
ordered our destruction.
People on the street were listening. A crowd gathered. The marchers were trying really hard to ignore the taunts and the jeers. But I could see the clenched teeth in some of the guys in our line. We had some skinheads in our crowd as well and they were muttering that "those nazi's give us a bad name." My jaws were locked tight as well. Tina's eyes reflected her fury.
That was the situation when the news crews came out of the building. They sensed the tension in the air, and hung around just in case. I hoped they would have nothing else to film.
Then Melissa arrived.
She was wearing her blue jump suit, with her wig on, face painted, and long dangling earrings. She parked across and down from the building, meaning she'd have to cross in front of the skinheads to get to the march. When I saw her, I smiled. I thought she looked great. Even if she was obviously a man.
It was sudden. The skinhead with the bible said that all queers should be put to death by stoning. Suddenly, Melissa was struck by a stone, and there was blood flowing from her cheek. She stopped and stared back at the crowd. The chanting from the marchers died. Melissa gave the nazi skinheads the finger.
Then everything erupted.
The hecklers became the bashers. Melissa went down under their fists and clubs. The marchers broke the peacekeepers line and headed for the rescue. The cameras were turned on.
I watched Tina for instructions. She was trying to pull our people away from the riot, telling them to go home. I joined her. The two of us got about six or seven of our former marchers out of the fray. Then a club from a bald headed idiot caught me across the side of my head, and I went down.
It was Sam who pulled me up. He was bleeding from his nose, and holding his side in pain, but he pulled me from my knees and pushed me towards a truck with its engine running. J.J. was driving. She helped me get in, and several other people joined us. I passed out once or twice. I remember one time waking to find Melissa's head in my lap.
The truck went to the hospital. They kept five of us overnight: Melissa, with a concussion and 32 stitches; Joey, with broken ribs; Carrie, with a broken jaw and concussion; me with a concussion; and Sam.
When my head finally cleared, Tina and J.J. were with me. Tina told me about Melissa and Joey and Carrie, and stressed that I would be fine. I asked about the news coverage.
"Actually, it was pretty good. It was on all three news stations, and they all said the riot was started by the jerks from across the street. They had film of the early part of the protest, and then footage of the attack on Melissa. It was noted that most of the damage was done by them, and they used weapons. We had a couple people who scored some hits with their signposts, but nothing else."
"Anyone get arrested?"
Tina grinned. "Eleven. Eight skinheads, and three members of our Action committee."
"What did they do? Besides defend themselves, I mean."
The grin widened. "They were throwing fake blood at the skinheads. It accidently hit a couple of cops."
I had to laugh. Then I stopped.
"Hey. What about Sam? He wasn't looking good when he pulled me off the ground. Is he okay?"
Tina didn't say anything for a moment, then shook her head. J.J. moved to stare out the window.
"Nobody knows," Tina said. "We know he's in the hospital, and we don't think it's good. But the doctors won't tell us anything until they hear from his parents. Even Bobby can't find out, and he's going crazy. They won't even let us see him."
"I thought Sam's parents were supportive."
"They are, but they're out of town. Bobby contacted them, and they're flying back. But until they get here, we won't be told anything."
"Well, at least tell me if he was injured or what. He was holding his side when I last saw him, and he had a bloody nose. Did he get hurt worse?"
"I don't think so. After the end of the riot, he collapsed. Bobby and I drove him to the hospital. When we told the emergency room people that he had AIDS, I thought they were going to bust a gut getting protective gear on. You should have seen it. Everyone there, whether they were going to work on him or not, had a robe, gloves, and a mask on. It was like the air around him was contaminated or something. Then they started to use the same 'contamination alert' for everyone we'd brought in from the riot."
"What did you expect from this backward city?"
I sighed and rubbed my temple gingerly. "I don't know. Maybe I thought the hospital would at least treat us like normal people."
"Ha." There was no humor in the word. "They've even put Sam in a quarantined cubicle. No one's allowed in without protective gear."
"What, do they think he's going to throw his blood at them or something?"
She half-grinned. "I don't know. But Sam always laughed at such stupidity."
"I donıt think he's laughing now."
Tina left a few minutes later, and J.J. was still standing at the window. I watched her for a moment. Then I asked if she was okay.
³Yeah, Iım fine.² She turned and came back to the bed. ³I think you just let yourself get conked over the head so you wouldnıt have to pay up.²
I looked at her, puzzled.
³Yeah. On your fuck-tab.²
I grinned. ³Youıre gonna make my face red again.²
³Yeah, well, thatıs what you get. Besides, when I said we should do something on Friday, I didnıt mean in the hospital.²
Sam's parents arrived that night. They immediately told the hospital to release all the information to Sam's lover Bobby, and the rest of our group. The doctors didn't like it, but they did it.
Sam had broken two ribs in the fight, but that wasn't the real problem. He had pneumonia. He'd probably had it before the riot, but nobody knew it. Between the broken rib, the pneumonia, and the general weakness of his immune system, the prognosis wasn't good. They were pumping massive amounts of antibiotics into him, but his lungs were still filled with fluid. Bobby sat by his bed day and night.
Nobody wanted to leave the hospital. I was supposed to stay in my bed, but I refused. Eventually the nurses gave up and allowed me to sit in the waiting room with the rest of the gang. As the hours dragged on, people either fell asleep, or went home. I sat there, even after Tina left. My head was killing me, but I refused to go back to my room. J.J. sat beside me and let me rest my head on her shoulder.
I didn't want to leave the area around Sam's door. The cold spot in my back was spreading and I was scared.J.J. wrapped her jacket around me and tried to keep me warm.
Near midnight, Bobby came out of the room to get a soda. I asked quietly if I could go in. He said yes, and held the door open.
Sam looked like he was sleeping. His face was white, but calm. I held his hand. He turned his head and looked at me.
"Hey, Sam." He smiled. "You better hurry up and get well. If you don't there won't be anyone to organize these riots."
He shook his head. "Yes there will." I could barely hear him.
"Don't talk, buddy. Just rest. You can tell me all about it when you're well."
The smile faded just a touch. Then he tried to speak again. I had to lean way down to hear the words.
"You can lead them."
I sat back up.
"Are you crazy? I wouldn't know the first thing about it."
He just smiled. He coughed several times. He closed his eyes again and squeezed my hand.
We sat there for several minutes, until Bobby came back. Then I tried to let go of his hand. He held on. I leaned back over him to hear him.
I smiled back at him.
"Love you, too, Sam. Get well."
I left him and went to my room. J.J. followed me. I cried in her arms till dawn, and fell asleep.
When I got out of the hospital a day or so later, I went to the office immediately to find out what was happening. I was shocked when they told me.
"What do you mean, nothing's going on. We got attacked by skinheads, Melissa's going to need cosmetic surgery, Sam's in the hospital, and nobody's doing anything?"
"Well, what do you want us to do?" Frank asked sarcastically. "Start another riot?"
I stared at him, startled.
That was exactly what I wanted to do.
Instead, I set up an around the clock vigil in the park between the hospital and the Gazette. Tina, J.J. and I got hundreds of people to write letters to the paper, and we rented a billboard right outside the Gazette office building, charging them with every crime we could think of. We hired another board and put Samıs picture on it. There was one word below the picture: Hero.
A week later there was a raid on a house in the north side of town. The police were looking for illegal weapons and drugs. They found them. They also found a high-level meeting going on between the leaders of the skinhead gang that attacked us, and some very prominent businessmen in the city. Among them was editorial cartoonist Don Atwater. There was even a city councilman.
When the police informed a few skinheads that they would face jail time for illegal possession of firearms, as well as their part in the riot, they pointed the finger at Ashen, saying he had called them and told them to break up the protest. He had been the silent leader of the ³Aryan Skinheads for Christ² for three years.
Atwater was forced to resign. The paper tried to keep everything quiet, but we weren't about to let that happen.
Frank, Tina, and I organized a press conference. It was to be held in the park where the vigil for Sam was going on. J.J. and the rest of the action committee would handle security. It was suggested that Bobby should speak, and he accepted. But someone would have to pick him up and drive him to the park and then back to the hospital. I volunteered to play chauffeur for the day.
We were finishing things at the office when Bobby found me.
³Rae, are you gonna speak at the press conference?²
³Bobby, youıre as bad as Sam. No. I am not ready to be a speaker for this organization. When I am, Iıll let you know. Got it?²
He grinned. ³I got it.²
Bobby left the office, and J.J. and I were alone. She came up behind me and rubbed my shoulders.
³Almost finished with the press release?²
³Yeah, almost. Are you hungry?²
³Starved. But I think we should get some food first.²
I slapped her hand. She sat down in the chair next to me.
³Rae, can I ask you something?²
J.J. sounded serious, so I turned the typewriter off and faced her.
³If you were going to speak, what would you talk about?²
I was tongue-tied. ³I donıt know. Iım not going to, so why worry about it?²
³Iım just curious. Pretend you were up on that podium, and you had this crowd that was listening to you, waiting for your words. What would you say?²
I had to think about that for a minute. I stood up and began to pace. I always think better when I pace.
³I donıt know, J. Iıd probably just say something like discrimination is wrong. We need to stand up for whatıs right.² I stopped in front of the window and stared out at the dark sky. ³You know, just before the protest I was talking to Sam. He said that the rally wasnıt about the cartoon, or the Amendment, or even about AIDS. It was about our rights as people. When I saw him in the hospital, I understood what he meant.²
I turned back toward her.
³This fight isnıt about civil rights for gays and lesbians, or bisexuals and transgenders. It isnıt about how weıre portrayed in the press, or whether or not we can get a marriage license. Itıs not about laws, and rules, and government. Itıs about people. You and me. Tina. Sam and Bobby. Itıs about the courage Sam needs every morning, just to get up and go through another day of pain. Itıs about Bobby having the guts to put a picture of him and Sam on his desk at work. Itıs about simple things, like holding hands, or kissing our lovers. Feeling safe in our cars, and our homes. But mostly, itıs about our lives.²
I turned back towards the window. ³You know, Iıve always loved Martin Luther King, and his speeches. He was so passionate, so powerful. As a kid, I memorized part of the I Have a Dreamı speech, but I never really knew what he was talking about. When I saw Sam in the hospital, I knew. Itıs not about rights.ı Itıs about the freedom to love, and the freedom to live. The legal stuff doesnıt matter. Our lives do.²
I stood there quietly, with my forehead pressed to the glass. J.J. was silent for a moment, and then I heard her get up. I could feel her arms go around me even before she moved them.
³Youıre ready. Whether you know it or not, you are. And when you finally speak out, the whole world will listen.²
I turned and rested my head against her shirt. ³Iıd be happy if anyone in this city would listen.²
The morning of the press conference I arrived early to help Tina set up the sound system once again. When we finished with that there was still almost two hours to wait. I wandered around the area for a while, and then headed for my car.
³Rae, where you going?²
³I donıt know. I just canıt stand around here waiting. Donıt worry, Iıll be back.²
³Want some company?²
³No, J.J. Besides, youıve got work to do. I wonıt be long.²
³Donıt forget you have to pick up Bobby at the hospital.²
I ended up driving around downtown and stopping at Rikiıs for an iced tea. Then I decided to tackle the Tetris game. I donıt know how long I stood there, punching buttons and pulling on the joystick. It felt like hours. The ice in my tea had melted away, and I was sweating by the time my quarter ran out. But when I looked at the top of the screen I was amazed. I was halfway through level eight.
Looking up at the clock, I realized I had to pick up Bobby in ten minutes. I left Rikiıs at a run.
Bobby was sitting outside Sam's room, his head down in his hands. I was just about to approach him, when the door opened, and a covered gurney was wheeled out. Sam's father was walking beside it, his hand gripping the rail. Sam's mother sat down beside Bobby and they hugged each other and cried.
I got it.
I didn't bother Bobby. Instead, I left my car at the hospital, and walked the six blocks to the park. I took my time, my mind filled with images of Sam.
I had never known anyone with more love and more courage. In my mind Sam was a hero. His was a story of freedom. I thought about what his message might be.
I got to the park just as the press conference was beginning. J.J. started toward me, but when she saw my face she stopped. As I passed her, I could see her hands were balled into fists.
Tina was introducing the speakers as they came to the podium. When she got to the point where she was supposed to introduce Bobby, I stood up and headed for the podium. J.J. looked at me with tears in her eyes and nodded. Tina looked surprised, but she introduced me.
I wasnıt even sure what I was going to say. I thought at first all I would do was cry.
But when I opened my mouth, the words were there.