Remembering Rush, Mourning Mike
In the wake of Rush Limbaugh’s death, we’ve all been reminded of his hatefulness, particularly toward those dying of AIDS early in his talk radio career. I remember those broadcasts. He celebrated the death and suffering of thousands simply because it disproportionately afflicted gay men.
One of those men was a good friend of mine.
In the interests of privacy, I’ll call that friend Mike. He was a warm, funny soul with a generous heart. Painfully thin even before he got sick, mainly because he was also painfully vain. But he was charming and kind, too. I remember watching him fall head over heels for a handsome guy he met at work, and how Mike blushed when he told me how Mr. Handsome gave him a rose one night during a smoke break. I remember driving from Durham to Raleigh to hang out at Mike’s house and getting snowed in. He generously gave up his bed and slept on the couch. Mike took me clubbing and introduced me to the joys of a greasy breakfast at 2:00 am after a night on the dance floor. Despite his own pain and loss, he reminded me that no matter what else happened, life was full of fun and possibility and love at a time when it felt like the whole world was collapsing in on me. He was a lovely human being, and I am still grateful for his friendship.
Like many gay men circa 1990, Mike did not have a good relationship with his family. He never spoke of them, so it surprised me when he announced one day that he was traveling to visit them. He was nervous, full of dread and hope, not sure how they would receive him, whether the visit would be friendly but distant or angry and ugly. It was a state of limbo I could relate to.
He mentioned that his parents had just built a new house, 6,000 square feet with an elevator, pool, and guest house. I had no idea Mike came from money. He certainly didn’t live like it. His parents had unceremoniously cut him off when they found out he was gay, and he had supported himself ever since. I was a privileged college student. Mike had been disowned from a fortune and supported himself as a nurse’s aid, spending each shift bathing and turning patients, and cleaning them up after they’d soiled themselves. And yet, he never resented my relative privilege, never was bitter.
And then Mike told me who his father was, a successful lawyer who famously represented a young woman who had contracted HIV from a healthcare provider during a routine procedure. I knew the case. It had been splashed across every newspaper in the country. It provoked strong emotions, mainly anger and pity, because it drew a sharp line between the gay men who had contracted HIV by having sex and those who had been infected “through no fault of their own.”
Fault and blame were heavily featured in the public rhetoric about HIV/AIDS. Many Americans, like Rush Limbaugh, thought gay men who were dying of AIDS were simply getting what they deserved, that god was punishing them. Yet, they pitied the “innocents” because they didn’t catch it by having sex. And they blamed the gay men for spreading the disease to the “innocents.” We were all reminded on a regular basis that the Christian god wanted us to die for being gay, that we were being punished for our sins because our sins were the most grievous of all. Being gay was worse than murder.
And so Rush Limbaugh celebrated our deaths. And his listeners cheered him on.
Mike’s father did a lot of interviews about his famous client with the news media. She was “innocent,” so they loved her. She got all of the nation’s collective pity. And Mike’s dad got a lot of attention and praise for representing his client. Mike told me that the client was even invited to stay in his parents’ guest house when she started getting sick. His parents wanted to offer her whatever help they could. How kind and generous, truly Christian.
When Mike got sick, his parents didn’t visit. They hadn’t visited when he was well or when he was diagnosed as HIV positive. They didn’t come when he got sick, and then well again, when he was hospitalized and then sent home. They didn’t even come when he was lying in the ICU dying.
And when he died, they still didn’t come. They had his body cremated, the ashes flown to them. Those of us who knew and loved Mike had a memorial in a church in downtown Raleigh with just an old photo of him in his navy uniform to remind us of his presence. We played a favorite song of his, and we spoke of our memories and love for him. We cried. We sat with the truth of our collective loss.
Mike was not a powerful man. He was not important in the way that we remember in obituaries. According to Rush Limbaugh, he deserved to get sick, to suffer, and die.
When Mike’s father died 20 years later, he was remembered as a good, even great, man. His obituary recounted his role in representing his poor, unfortunate client who ended up with AIDS innocently, and then extolled his virtues as a supporter of the arts, a philanthropist, a pillar of the community.
“He was preceded in death by his son, Mike….”
Mike’s father was mourned by society, his life and contributions celebrated. When Mike died, society forgot about him except for a small group of friends and Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh didn’t specifically mention Mike. But he cared about every gay man who died from AIDS. He rang bells and celebrated because they deserved to die.