I came out of the closet on Mother’s Day, 1996. The reason I came out when I did, on the day that I did, was because of Mike Regan.
I’m attending Mike’s funeral this weekend. He died at 73 after a long illness. The story of his role in my coming out will live as long as I do. He loved to tell it this story. I’m assuming because he was proud of his role. And he should have been.
Mike liked to joke that he “out-ed” me, which was funny only because it wasn’t true. Outing someone involves malicious intent. There was nothing devious in Mike’s role. He was an advisor and a counselor. Not to me, mind you, but to my mother.
This story begins in a hospital recovery room following my mother’s hysterectomy. It was there that I met Mike and his partner Steve Hermann for the first time. They were on one side of the hospital bed, I was on the other. We shook hands over my convalescing mother. (That’s Mike, pictured above on the right, and Steve, with my mom, at a cocktail lounge, not the hospital room!)
The circumstances that brought these two men into my mother’s life are almost as peculiar as the image of that post-hysterectomy handshake.
In 1993, my mother and my stepfather purchased a cabin in the mountains of Arizona as a summer retreat. Shortly after moving in, my stepfather made a startling discovery: he knew the next-door neighbor! He and Mike had worked together decades earlier in a very different time and a very different place.
And now the four of them were set to live out their retirement years next door to each other (Steve, it should be noted, is the baby of the bunch and was working then and still works fulltime today).
Mike and Steve, life partners for 26 years, were the first gay people my mother had ever befriended.
At the time, my mother was a very conservative, traditional, and somewhat sheltered individual. She was stuck in the ‘50s yet living in the ‘90s. Perhaps Mike Regan was brought into her life to push her fast forward button.
The two of them connected on many different levels. First and foremost they were parents and grandparents and loved to brag about the kids in their lives. They loved to play bridge. They enjoyed their libations.
And they loved to talk.
As it turns out they often talked about me: The 30-something single guy who lived alone in a gay part of town, never talked about women, never went on dates, but goes to the gym five times a week.
Mike’s gaydar went off like a foghorn!
Neither did it take Mike long to surmise that my mother needed a mentor, someone who could convince her that everything would be OK if, in fact, her son was gay.
So he went to work over consecutive summers walking her down the path of acceptance. Of course Steve was there to offer his advice as well. Through it all, my mother got to watch the two of them acting just like any straight couple she knew.
Jump ahead a couple years, to May 1996.
A relatively new non-profit group was hosting a formal black-tie fundraiser in our city. This organization has gone on to become one of the country’s leaders in clinical trials, education and behavioral health for those with HIV and AIDS.
Today their galas draw over a 1,000 people, many of whom are connected to corporate sponsors, and many of them straight. Back in 1996, at the third-annual gala, there were maybe 200 people in attendance. Almost all of them gay men. My partner and I were among them.
So were Mike and Steve.
At this point, keep in mind, I’m still in the closet. I had met Mike and Steve just once, in Mom’s hospital room, and now I was in a 5-month relationship with a man (which my family didn’t know about), who happened to be my date this night.
It’s hard to hide from somebody at a sit-down dinner for 200 people, or especially the cocktail party beforehand. Not that I was necessarily trying to hide from Mike and Steve. I just knew that my being at that event was apropos of something much more significant.
But I had to say something. So I approached Mike and said: “Are you surprised to see me here?” To which he said, “No, and your mother wouldn’t be either.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. He and my mother had had numerous conversations about my possible gayness, he said. Only recently, Mike told me, was she in a place where she could handle the news.
With that conversation, everything changed. For the rest of the evening, going through my head in no particular order and yet in a constant loop, were the following thoughts: I’m at a gay event. One of my mother’s buddies is here. He now knows I’m gay. My mother suspects I’m gay. I’d hate for her to get confirmation from someone other than me. This is THE opportunity to come out. I need to talk to my mother. Like now!
I want my Mommy!!
And walla! I didn’t have to wait long. The next day was Mother’s Day, which may not seem like the best day to break this kind of news, but I can tell you–and my mother will confirm– that it was the absolute perfect occasion for us.
Through the entire chat, my mother was stoic. She asked good questions. She didn’t judge. She didn’t cry. It was all very adult and non-hysterical.
And it cleared the air. We were able to move forward in a more open and honest way. It strengthened our bond. Not a bad Mother’s Day gift after all, eh?
And for that we can thank Mike Regan.
He held my mother’s hand as she matured from ignorance to acceptance on the gay issue.
If you believe people are set in their ways and can’t change their fundamental way of thinking, consider this final anecdote.
When Mike Regan met my mother, she was, at the very least, uncomfortable with the whole gay thing. She may even have been one of those people who thought you could catch AIDS from a toilet seat.
She went from that, to this:
My first partner was HIV positive when we met in 1995 and shortly thereafter moved into the category of full-blown AIDS.
Not only did my mother accept that I was gay. But she also came to terms with the fact that I was in a relationship with someone who was HIV positive, and I wasn’t.
Kenn was an amazing human being. He was stunningly gorgeous. He was a world-class ballroom dancer and won competitions all over the world. His charm was mesmerizing. His smile could stop a freight train.
And he immediately won my mother over. He always made her feel like the most important person in the room. And she adored him. Everyone did.
Less than two years after we met, Kenn became very ill. It was about 10 days before Christmas, and his condition was deteriorating. He was alert and coherent, although had recently been transferred to an assistive living facility for AIDS patients.
Around December 21, my mother wondered if Kenn was going to be able to spend Christmas day with us. “He requires access to oxygen and his vital signs need monitoring around the clock,” I told her.
“Well can’t that all be done from here?” my mom said, referring to her living room. She asked that I look into having Kenn transported to the house (about a four-mile distance) so he could spend Christmas day with the family.
Sadly, it never happened. He died two days before Christmas.
Whenever I hear that older people are “set in their ways,” I think about this story. Here was a woman, who just a few years prior could have been described as homophobic, now requesting that a dying AIDS patient be brought to her home for Christmas.
None of that, none of it, would have been possible without Mike Regan.
In case it’s unclear, Mike wasn’t just a friend to my mother but a friend of mine as well. He wasn’t someone I saw frequently, or called regularly, like I should have.
But when we were together, it was always special. We made each other laugh. He always knew how to push my buttons, like any good friend does. But we shared something most friends don’t share: a life-altering experience.
In that regard, he is, and will always remain, a friend like no other.
Thank you, sir. May you rest in eternal peace.
(To be continued…)