Today -- in honor of National Coming Out Day -- I remember and celebrate the memory of Donald Gordon Pike. After sharing a very abbreviated version of this story on Facebook and receiving a strong response, I decided to expand on it here.
Growing up we all imagine our first kiss. No matter our sexual orientation, we hope that the kiss comes from someone who'll make our heart thump and our breath catch in our throat.
My first kiss came from someone I really felt conflicted over.
We first met in 6th grade, each of us burdened by the "new kid" label; I had come from a nearby town, Don had moved from Maine, and we lived just one street away from each other. After our shared social-outcast status led to a brief friendship, we became sworn enemies when someone in the group of girls I subsequently joined said to me, "You're friends with him? That kid with the google eyes?" From that point on, he was Google Eyes, G.E. for short, and even General Electric. (In his defense, he had deep dark beautiful eyes, but girls can be cruel when they sense someone is different.)
Two years later when my mother hired Don to rake the leaves in our yard, I came home after school to find him struggling with the task on a rainy day. Feeling uncharacteristically sorry for him, I invited Don to come inside to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate. We buried the hatchet and gradually took tentative steps toward a second and more enduring friendship.
A year later he asked me to a school dance. Just as a friend, I thought, until that awkward moment when -- while sitting side by side on folding chairs in the school cafeteria which had been turned into a snack bar -- he lunged unexpectedly and planted a kiss on my lips.
My conflicted feelings came from the fact that I really really liked Don, but it was clear from that kiss that I had no romantic interest in him. I was also angry that it had happened in front of everybody under bright lights (rather than in the darkened gymnasium where the band was playing) and that I was going to hear about it the following week from all my friends.
After some immature behavior on my part which almost took us back to the days of General Electric, I gave him the friend zone speech -- I like you a lot but I think we'd be better off as friends -- which he took with much more grace and relief than I'd expected.
That friendship became the most important one of my entire life. It survived my relationships with my high school sweetheart (3 years), my college boyfriend (5.5 years) and lasted through my marriage and the birth of both my daughters. We'd still be friends today if Don were still alive.
But I'm jumping ahead of the story.
We became so close that we developed a new language for our relationship. Taking our cue from the Dan Fogelberg/Tim Weisberg album "Twin Sons of Different Mothers" which had recently been released, we called each other Twin Brother and Twin Sister -- T.Bro and T.Sis for short.
He had my back at every turn throughout high school. When he got a job as a stock boy at a women's clothing store and saw how unhappy I was as a waitress at the local greasy spoon, he got me in the door at Ormond's as the fitting room attendant. (Trust me...it was a step up.) He urged me to break up with the sleazeball I was dating (a guy who subsequently got another girl pregnant and then skipped town) and approved of the one who became my high school boyfriend.
Once he got his driver's license he bought an old Ford truck and drove me back and forth to school every day. He installed a tape deck and introduced me to Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark" album, singing along and tearing up every time she sang "Send me somebody / Who's strong and somewhat sincere."
The summer of our freshman year he came home to come out. Sitting on the front porch of my house, Don wore a purple silk shirt and smelled better than I did...but I still didn't get it until he told me he was gay.
That's when my education began. He gave me copies of Christopher Street to read. He answered every question I had about gay life and gay culture no matter how specific. When I visited him in Washington he took me out to gay clubs and introduced me to all his friends. I learned what it meant to be a fag hag (a woman who hangs around with gay men) and a fairy princess (same thing, different term.)
It's easy to make assumptions about people you don't know and lifestyles you've never been exposed to. But when those "people" are your friends and they're willing to share freely and honestly, you can either drop them like a hot potato or open your mind and your heart.
All this from the first boy I kissed who already knew he was gay but was trying desperately hard to pass for straight.
He knew what would happen to him if he came out in our small town, and he realized he needed support and an accepting community before he could take that step. He found all that in college, but too many adults never find it in time to live an authentic life. He had boyfriends, a long term partner, a lovely house in the suburbs, and a good life despite the fact that he was HIV positive for most of his adulthood. After he came out, he lived 26 fulfilling years and passed away at 45 due to complications from his disease. I love him and miss him every day.
The world would not know hate or feel distrust toward the LGBT community and would enthusiastically embrace marriage equality if everyone had a best friend like Don. Women are raised to expect their first kiss will come from Prince Charming, but I am a better person for having kissed a gay man. I wouldn't have it any other way.