"She says she's praying for me," Ethan said. "Praying that God will cure me. Save me. Make me not gay. Make me not sick. And then she told me I couldn't come home anymore. That my just being there was too much for them. Hurt them. Hurt my dad. But they would pray for me."
It was Saturday night. I was working the door at The Eagle, a gay leather bar here in LA. I knew Ethan from the bar. Nice guy, 23, moved here from outside Memphis about two years ago, works as a waiter at a vegan restaurant while putting himself through college. Handsome and friendly.
The kind of son any mom would be proud of.
"A month after Trump became president, my dad died," he continued. "Had a heart attack. I went to the funeral, but my mom wouldn't let me in. She made my brothers throw me out. She said it was my fault—that I had killed my dad."
It's hard for me to imagine myself in Ethan's situation. My family is the exact opposite of his—open and tolerant, totally left-wing politically. My mom and dad were the first people, besides my husband, who I told when I found out I was HIV positive. It never occurred to me not to tell them. For as long as I can remember, they've loved and supported me, unconditionally.
"I was so stupid. But I was mad. I couldn't think straight. I found a rock and I smashed in my mom's car windows. As I walked away I saw one of those 'Make America Great Again' bumper stickers on her car."
Ethan's mom had called him earlier that night, out of the blue. But he didn't answer, and that was why he was there talking to me. He didn't know what to do, so he sought out a family that does love and support him: the community he'd found at gay bars in LA.
"Part of me thinks, fuck her," he went on. "She doesn't get to just call me up. But then part of me… she's my mom. I love her. I miss her."
He eventually decided to leave the bar and call her back, his love for his mother winning out over his anger about her intolerance.
As a door guy, I meet thousands of queer people every year, and I hear stories like Ethan's all the time‚ about being kicked out or thrown away by one's family over religion and politics. As if their children were disposable.
Stories like Misha's, a drag queen from Santa Ana.
"I never thought of myself as a girl or a boy. I was just me," Misha told me one night after hosting a party at the Eagle. I was supposed to be cleaning up, but I could tell Misha wanted to talk—tell me something important. "When my mom caught me sneaking into my bedroom in drag after a party one night, she started screaming and crying. My dad and brother came into the room to see what was wrong. They both beat me. They beat me so bad I ended up in the hospital. I spent three nights in that hospital. My parents and brother never came to visit." Misha laughed. "Can you believe that? That I actually wanted them to come visit me?"
When I married my husband Alex, my dad, brother, 12-year-old nephew and stepmother all came to the wedding. My mother, who was too sick to travel, made our wedding rings with our nephew. It's stories like Misha's that remind me how lucky I am for something as simple as that.
"I've never talked to them again," Misha said. "I tried going home once, but my brother just dragged me into the middle of the street and beat me. Calling me a faggot." Misha lit a cigarette. "It's always worse on my birthday. That's when I miss my mom the most."
"Is it your birthday today?" I asked.
"It is," she said, looking at her phone. "As of two hours ago."
"I'll be done here in fifteen. Wanna go to Swingers and get a cupcake?"
I remember the way Misha kissed my forehead when I said that. Her kindness made me feel sad. I wanted to go to her parents' house and scream and yell at her dad and brother and defend her. To tell them that she was their child—that she loved them, even after what they did to her, and forgave them when it would seem all but impossible to do so.
But I know that isn't how the world works.
These situations are complicated. Take Enrique, a sexy 25-year-old from San Bernadino I met one Sunday while working the door at Faultline, another LA gay bar. We fucked in one of the back rooms there and became fast friends. He's sexy in that totally unassuming way. The kind of guy you could kiss for hours, even after you were spent.
Eventually, he told me his mom had kicked him out when he was 16. She had gotten sober and found Jesus, apparently, and decided it wasn't safe to allow someone with gay desires to be around his two brothers, both younger than him.
After she kicked him out, Enrique said he was homeless for six months, sleeping on friend's couches or with guys he met online, sometimes in the park. He made sure to finish high school and get into college, no matter what, and ended up going to UC Santa Barbara. He got a degree in computer science and makes a good living as a programmer today.
"I still send her money. Pay her rent," he said. "I bought my younger brother his first car. But I haven't seen them in years."
"Why do you send them money then?" I asked.
He laughed, the kind of laugh that makes you want to fall in love—sweet and open, full of light.
"She's my mom, man. And they're my brothers. It's not like they did anything wrong," he said. "They didn't stand a chance. She drags those kids to church every day, poisoning them with lies. It isn't their fault."
I remember the way Enrique leaned in to kiss me soon after, and I remember thinking, I would not be as forgiving or as kind as he is.
Not long after stepping out to call his mom, Ethan came back into the Eagle and stood next to me. I could tell by the stunned look on his face that things didn't go the way he wanted.
"She told me her minister had talked about AIDS on Sunday," he said. "She kept saying she was worried I was going to get 'the AIDS.' She kept telling me that God loved me, Jesus was watching over me, and that if they decided to give me 'the AIDS' it was because they loved me so much they wanted me to learn about my choices. About my way of life. About my sickness."
My heart broke a little bit listening to him talk.
"She told me she prayed that I would get AIDS," he said. He laughed, but I think it was to stop himself from crying. "She told me she prayed that God would save me, even if it meant killing me."
I hugged Ethan, holding onto him, not sure what else I could do. I thought about my mother. She had once told me how lucky I was. All her best friends—all the most beautiful men she knew—were gay men. When I told her I had HIV she just said, "Honey, no matter what happens, I love you. Don't ever forget how much I love you."
"Ethan," I said, trying to conjure my mother, "if there is a God, he loves you. I promise. You are beautiful. You are so worthy of being loved."
I pulled him away from the door into privacy, as I continued to hold him while he cried.