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January 29, 1998
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author's permission granted.

Winston sat alone on a stool near the fireplace in the ornate living room of his longtime companion's aunt's house. As people sat at a long dinner table in the dining room eating and quietly talking among themselves, he stared blankly out a window on that cold January afternoon. Occasionally he would sigh and wipe away the tears that streamed from underneath his thick glasses and down his face.

A few hours earlier, he had buried his lover of almost 15 years. His lover, my brother Eric, had died of complications from AIDS. Overweight, middle-aged, odd-looking, without any close friends and disconnected from his own family, Winston faced an uncertain future and a hostile world - alone. All alone.

I thought about this as I sat at that dinner table with my family. I could not help but stare at Winston. He was so utterly bereaved. And so very frightened. My mind raced back to the funeral earlier that morning and how surprised I was at myself for being so stunned at the depth of his grief. His cries of anguish had echoed through out the funeral home.

"Oh, God, no. No, no, no," he cried as the minister gave the eulogy.

When I walked to the podium to speak on behalf of my family, Winston, who sat in the front row with my sisters and brothers, was literally shaking with grief.

"My God," I thought to myself, "he really loved him."

I realized then that the pain from his loss was every bit as acute as if I had lost my wife. The gaping hole in his life was every bit as damaging. Conversely, his love must have been every bit as genuine and meaningful.

It occurred to me that, as open-minded and as tolerant as I always thought I was, I had been unfair to Winston, my own brother Eric, and all other gay people. Quite frankly, I had objectified them. While my politics allowed me to accept homosexuality as an "alternative" lifestyle, I really did not appreciate their relationships as qualitatively meaningful or purposeful, certainly not as much as mine - or those of any other heterosexuals, for that matter.

In spite of all the evidence around me that pointed to the contrary, I never thought of homosexuals as desiring or being part of long-term and substantial relationships. Generally, I had thought of them as narcissistic and promiscuous.

It never occurred to me that their desire for love and companionship - to have someone to grow old with, to fill the gaps in this all too often lonely and frequently cruel life - was just like everyone else's.

It is that type of callousness and ignorance that are at the root of efforts to marginalize homosexuals.

It allows us to do such things as not take their cries for understanding seriously. It allows us to dismiss their concerns out of hand and label their demands to be treated with the same respect and dignity we treat everyone else as demands for "special treatment."

That is the attitude of a citizens group in Ypsilanti. Called Citizens Opposed to Special Treatment, or COST, the group has organized a petition drive to remove homosexuals from the groups protected under Ypsilanti's human rights ordinance.

The petition drive was prompted by a City Council vote last month to adopt the rights ordinance. The ordinance assures that no one in Ypsilanti is denied equal protection because of varied factors, including sexual orientation.

It was drafted after an incident last February in which Standard Printing Co. in Ypsilanti refused to print raffle tickets for a fund-raiser sponsored by Tri-Pride, a group of gay and lesbian social work students at Eastern Michigan University. The company's owners said they felt the event would promote homosexuality, a lifestyle they oppose because of religious beliefs.

There might be ways to deal constructively with the tension between a group of young people who were clearly discriminated against and a business whose owners say they are motivated by religious principles. But now COST wants to devalue the lives and rights of Ypsilanti residents (many who have no part in this fight) because of whom they choose to sleep with.

This can happen only when we perceive homosexuals as somehow generically different from the rest of us - as if they are less human.

This is not about promoting a homosexual agenda or condoning a lifestyle contrary to one's beliefs. It is about recognizing that in spite of our differences in colors, religions, races and sexual orientation, all of us share a common bond in that we are all human beings. And everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, respect and fairness.

We will continue to victimize gay people until we realize that all they want is simply to be loved, just like anyone else. Until we realize that Winston's tears are every bit as real as anyone else's. ...

Later, after everyone had eaten and as people were trickling out for home, I watched from the living room window of my aunt's house as some of my family members helped Winston get in my cousin's car. He was leaving for the train station, where he would catch the train back to Harlem.

He sat in the car with his head cocked back, a handkerchief over his forehead and eyes. As the car took off into the darkness, carrying with it one broken, lonely man, it occurred to me that not one of Winston's relatives had come to the funeral. They had "problems" with his lifestyle.

So now Winston stands alone in a hostile world that will offer him no comfort, where the measure of his humanity is in the pain and misery that he must conceal.

Trevor W. Coleman is a Free Press editorial writer. You can write him at the Detroit Free Press, 321 W. Lafayette, Room 544, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or via E-mail at:

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