On June 26, 1995, we aired an episode of Robb’s Life that showed him attending a panel discussion at St. Ambrose University on AIDS and Gay Awareness. A sparse crowd sat in the auditorium to hear a panel of mostly gay and lesbian speakers talk about their struggles to live a normal, happy life like everyone else. One woman on the panel was straight, but spoke about the discrimination faced by her brother, a gay man, and how she accepted him without question.
Robb made the point that as both a gay man and a man living with AIDS, he was not looking for special rights, only the same rights that other people enjoyed.
Twenty years to the day after that episode aired, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of same sex couples to marry in all 50 states. The date was June 26, 2015.
As the reporter/videographer of Robb’s Life, that panel discussion 20 years ago was the first on this topic — in that type of intelligent, respectful setting — I had ever heard. On the panel was an aging male couple — Dave and Jim — who had been together 25 years. I had no idea gay couples lived together so long. The image I had in my mind was a lifestyle of illicit, secretive meetings in bus depot toilet stalls or in parks such as Credit Island, a park in Davenport along the Mississippi River where gay men hooked up in the woods, police occasionally made arrests, and reporters occasionally did sensational stories that repulsed readers.
Growing up in the South in the Fifties and Sixties, the image I was given of gay people was one of evil perverts who hit on straight men and were inspired to choose their hideous lifestyle by Satan, whose mission was to destroy the sacred family unit and destroy the nation. That’s what my preacher told me. Who was I to argue?
This message was ingrained so deeply into our minds, many of us held onto it well into adulthood. It was about this time in 1995 that I returned home to Lexington, Kentucky, and while I was visiting, I attended a party with some of my childhood friends. They were successful in business and education — teachers, principals, insurance salesmen and executives.
The subject of gay people came up somehow, and I explained that I was doing a series on a young man living with AIDS.
One of my best friends leaned over the table where we were talking. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Kenny, if I was working with a queer and he hit on me, I would kill him.”
Now I knew he really wouldn’t kill a gay person. It was just bluster and bigotry talking. But it bothered me. After knowing Robb for a couple of months, how could I even consider violence against someone who was a good person, a brave person, a person with such a fun sense of humor?
I had used the word “queer” a thousand times as I was growing up. But suddenly, the word was ugly and as harsh as a slap across the face.
It is easy to hate someone you do not know. It is easy to think someone is possessed by Satan until you sit with him in a doctor’s office, knowing there is nothing that can be done to save his life, and he still is able to smile and make people laugh.
Walking around the room with my heavy camcorder during the discussion panel, listening to the various stories of the speakers, shooting them from different angles and recording the audio, I heard perspectives that I had never considered while growing up in my bigoted, socially strict, conservative religious world. I heard perspectives like that of the young woman with the strange haircut and the sweet voice who said she had been bullied and shunned in school because she was different.
And I recalled my good friend saying he would kill a “queer.”
Something was not right with this picture.
I began waking up.
This is the story that aired on June 26, 1995, twenty years to the day before the Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage.
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