Category Archives: LGBT Pride Month

From GRID To AIDS

July, early 1980s, San Francisco.

A month before my 25th birthday, I began my clinical training in mental health. I was doing a rotation in a crisis clinic, a small psych emergency room affiliated with a larger hospital. I was eager to get out of the classroom and start working with clients. I had no idea that the nation’s health care community was at a crossroads, entirely unprepared for what was about to unfold.

Within a few weeks, we began to see a new presentation, which quickly developed into a dreadful pattern. A young man would be brought in, overtly psychotic or confused and delirious. We’d ask questions and find out that he had a steady job, a strong friendship group, sometimes a partner, and no psych history. Further questions would rule out recreational drugs as the cause. He’d also have a recent medical history that made no sense – sometimes a rare form of cancer, sometimes terrible skin lesions, sometimes a parasite only seen in sheep. He would have lost an alarming amount of weight in a startlingly short period of time. He would be in his 20s and gay. He was a healthy young man, who was inexplicably dying.

Initially, we didn’t understand the cause (single agent? combination?), or how the virus was transmitted (sexual contact? airborne? insect bite?). Until that point, “Safe Sex” meant preventing pregnancy; the idea of gay men using “protection” during sex was ludicrous. As the medical community realized that HIV was sexually transmitted, many people put up huge resistance to precautions like using condoms and closing the famous San Francisco bath houses. With our nation’s bruised history of homophobia (which is sadly ongoing), with self-proclaimed religious leaders ranting that AIDS was a “scourge” from God, folks in the gay community understandably wondered if these “protective measures” were the actually the next bigoted attempts to shut down gay sex.

I remember having lunch with a group of residents at the hospital. We were all in training, in different fields of medicine. One woman in pediatrics – bright, dedicated and decent to the bone — asked if the patients I had seen were truly all gay men, or if that was homophobic propaganda. I assured her it was true — which made no sense to any of us. We sat around our table and brainstormed, wondering if there could be some sort of Andromeda Strain phenomenon, making males in their 20s more vulnerable than females in their 90s. But that didn’t help us understand the gay factor or the sheep. One of the residents grew up on a farm, and we questioned him about rare illnesses in animals…which of course clarified nothing.  In all of the patients I had seen, 100% were gay and male; 0% had contact with sheep. Looking back, it seems like an idiotic discussion; at that time, we were scrambling – sharply aware that as we ate our sandwiches, people were dying.

Over time, the diagnosis evolved from Gay Cancer or GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) to AIDS. But we still had no medication to manage the condition. AIDS was a death sentence, and the path from diagnosis to death was brutal.

The following year, my training program offered the opportunity to work on the “AIDS Ward” at San Francisco General Hospital. This unit was set up solely for AIDS patients, staffed entirely by people who chose to be there. Even as a trainee, I was given the choice to opt out, because everyone was so frightened. But I figured if I asked my patients to step up and deal with their fear, then the least I could do was step up and deal with my own. To this day, I’ve never seen a better-run unit in any hospital. I’ve never been in an environment with a stronger sense of teamwork, with more exemplary patient care. Working on the AIDS Ward was a privilege.

It was also a heart-break. As a psych trainee, I was called in for mental health issues. Some patients needed meds when the virus attacked their brain, but most needed to talk. They asked questions, trying to understand. Sometimes I had answers; usually I didn’t. I listened to their stories, each unique, each the same.

My main role was to help them catch up to themselves. AIDS had slammed them, a blitzkrieg assault with such force that they had no time to adjust. Some showed me photographs, pre-AIDS, smiling and strong.  The pictures captured an experience that defied language, as they grieved for their former selves. I helped them build an emotional bridge between their then and their now.

I’ll always remember those young men who lived, loved, fought, lost. I’m grateful to them, to their friends and to their families for allowing me into their lives and into their deaths. I wish I could tell them, all these years later, that they paved the way for others to survive. I hope they know how valuable they were to me. I dedicate this post to them.

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Amy’s Novels:

Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable deals with homophobic bullying at school, and follows a girl’s journey after she comes out to her family. The story tracks a group of diverse high school friends as they confront homophobia in themselves and others, and find individual paths to becoming LGBT allies.

Tightwire follows a rookie psych intern through her first year of clinical training, treating a stormy and talented young man. This book tracks a strong friendship between two men, one gay and one straight. Two other important characters are a lesbian couple, raising two children, who become role model parents to the main character. This is a story of the importance of becoming your full self.

Click here to check out Amy’s recent blog posts, read reviews, purchase her novels.

https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

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Filed under AIDS awareness, LGBT, LGBT Pride Month, Uncategorized

Diversity Makes America Great

Mr. President, June 1, 2017, will go down in history as a national embarrassment. You began with silence, no acknowledgement of LGBT Pride Month. You ended by turning your back on the Paris Agreement. Through the day, I thought of your voice during the campaign: Make America Great Again. But you’re working against your own slogan, and when you step down, our country will have a spectacular mess to clean up. For now, I wish I could introduce you to some friends of mine.  They’re all in high school. They’re talented, scrappy, wonderful, flawed.  They’re gay and straight, established citizens and first-generation immigrants, several racial heritages. They’re our past and our future, the heart and soul of our country.

Caroline

Smart, intuitive, lives too much in her head. Caucasian, Jewish. Transfers from a wealthy college prep academy to Hollywood High. Discovers a gift for helping others find inner strength they never knew they had.

The Duke

Black, tall, muscular, leader of a gang. Impulsive, charismatic. Repeating his senior year of high school. To his (and Caroline’s) horror, she is assigned to tutor him. To their great surprise (since he flunked his classes and couldn’t graduate the previous year), The Duke turns out to be quite intelligent. To their even greater surprise, he and Caroline become friends.

Gary

Irish immigrant, Catholic, Caucasian. Tall, blond, muscular, broad-shouldered, a total klutz. On Hollywood High’s football team (due to his size rather than any athletic ability). Academically brilliant. Strong LGBT ally.

Vincent

Japanese American, parents lived in the internment camps as young children. Paints and writes poetry. And in case a stereotype is brewing — he’s straight. Two years ahead of Caroline and Gary in high school.

Irene

Red hair, tall and lanky, captain of Hollywood High’s basketball team. Enraged by injustice, impatient to change the world. Always ready to stand up for the underdog, speak for the voiceless.

Kayla

Black, gifted singer and academically smart. Caroline’s first friend at her new school. Bright, loyal, polite, brave. A petite girl with a huge soprano.

Valerie

Debutante, social queen at Laurel Academy For Girls, the prep school Caroline left. Gorgeous. Lives in a Beverly Hills mansion. Talented artist — oil paintings and metal sculptures. Watched her father die of a heart attack at the family dinner table. Hides a big secret.

J.D.

Caucasian. Undocumented. A student at Hollywood High, and a prostitute to survive. His dream is to pursue his education.

Mr. President, my young friends would like to know you. They’re full of fire, stepping forward to meet the world. Actually, they’re not exactly real people. They’re characters in my first novel. As adolescents, their paths intertwine and they change the course of each other’s lives. Together, they empower each other by building each other up, never by tearing each other down. Mr. President, I wish that one night, instead of posting hatred on Twitter, you’d read the novel and meet my friends. You’d see that in spite of and because of their diversity, they make America great.

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Amy Kaufman Burk is an author and blogger. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, was written in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school. The plot follows a group of friends and their dawning awareness of homophobia. The story tracks each student’s path to becoming an LGBT ally, and includes one family’s journey after a family member comes out.

Click on the link to read the first few chapters, see reviews, purchase the novel.

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Filed under LGBT Pride Month, resistance, Strength In Diversity, Uncategorized

LGBT Pride Month: Yale Has Come A Long Way

A few weeks into my first semester at Yale, I was walking to the Silliman dining hall, when I ran into a group of freshmen on their way to Commons. I was quiet by nature, and always preferred small to large. Everything about Commons felt too big and too loud. But I hadn’t yet found my social footing, so I was pleased when my classmates asked me to join them.

The day was sunny and warm, perfect New Haven post-summer-pre-winter weather. We all wore jeans and T-shirts, backpacks slung over our shoulders, comfortable in the light breeze. We were near the entrance to Commons, when I heard a student raise his voice: “Nobody wants you here!”

I turned and saw a folding table with three young women. Their petition was short and simple, asking people to support gay and lesbian students. The young man who yelled was surrounded, a pack of five men, threatening and condescending. The three women were clearly upset, but stood their ground.

I barely registered my lunch group’s calling for me to “come on” and “hurry up”. Instead, I slowly walked back to the table. Quietly, I signed the petition. The women thanked me politely, although their eyes were on the pack, as were mine. I can still picture those boys – all in polo shirts, trim and fit, Gentlemen’s Quarterly handsome. I met each of their eyes, and they stared back. A few grinned brazenly; one looked me over and licked his lips. I was unable to speak.

In my high school, gay boys were constantly targeted, verbally and physically. But violence was common, because my high school’s population included several gangs, always ready to erupt. Yes, the gay boys were bullied terribly. But most of the violence at school was between rival gangs. Surrounded by the fireworks of gang warfare, I failed to identify the magnitude of homophobia as a source. Even more naively, I never expected to find bigotry in college.

I don’t remember much about that lunch, except the stares from the group. When I finally found my voice and asked what was wrong, the bravest of the bunch spoke up: “Are you gay?” I shook my head and they exchanged baffled glances. The girl to my right put down her glass of milk. “Then why did you sign the petition?”

I walked to my next class slowly, knowing I had done something terribly wrong. It took me weeks to figure out that I should have returned to that folding table, and stood with those three women. I should have found my voice, spoken up, said that if “Nobody wanted them here”, then I was glad to be “Nobody”.

Over time, I found my group of friends at Yale. I stopped being frightened of polo shirts. I began to hit my academic stride, and my confidence grew. I ate at Commons, and felt comfortable. I learned to handle big and loud. By the end of my first year, I had fallen head over heels in love with Yale. But I was also disturbingly aware that during my bright college years, the people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum often had a tough time, navigating an environment that pulsed with overt and covert hostility.

I’m told that Yale has grown, changed and evolved into a safe and supportive environment for people of any sexuality and sexual identity. Now, when I look over the curriculum for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, I’m impressed. Back in my time at college, I was involved in Student-to-Student Counseling; now I read about Walden Peer Counseling, Pathways Peer Counseling, Queer Peers at Yale – and I feel a surge of pride for my alma mater. I’ll forgive Yale for needing time to evolve, and I’ll ask those 3 women at that folding table to forgive me for my silence, for walking away on that day back in 1976. I, too, needed time to evolve.

Yale has come a long way.

Happy LGBT Pride Month.

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Amy Kaufman Burk is an author and blogger. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, was written in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school, and follows one family’s journey after their daughter comes out. Her second novel, Tightwire, includes a strong friendship between a gay man and a straight man, as well as two women, a couple raising 2 children, who become role model parents to the main character. Amy’s blog has several posts in strong support of LGBTQ+. Check out Amy’s website to find links to her blog and her novels on Amazon.

http://amykaufmanburk.com

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Filed under college, LGBT Pride Month, Yale

I Wish He Had Told Me

Greg was the boy I’d been waiting to find – bright, funny, and he didn’t think I was weird because I read a ton and liked Latin. He had thick, black curls and best of all, a hint of facial hair. We were both sixteen.

We sat in my family’s living room, sipping Ginger Ale, and I told him about my public high school with over forty native languages. He told me about his Catholic school, affiliated with his church. I told him how upset I was by the violence targeting gay boys. He said his school had no gay students. I stated that was impossible, that maybe the environment didn’t allow students to feel okay coming out. He looked down, then faced me and said quietly, “It would be okay with me”.

I talked about growing up in the film industry with a screenwriter dad – how my parents’ actor friends, haute couture mavens, were alarmed because I refused to wear make-up. He talked about his family, observant in a way I’d never experienced — with his grandfather jetting around the world, helping priests interpret tricky passages of the Bible. He grinned, describing his parents’ horror when he snuck into a community theatre audition and scored the lead in Hair — which included several references to sex and singing the word “ass”.

I wondered if I had found my first boyfriend. I was such a good girl – excellent grades, never smoked pot, always polite. I would have loved to date a guy who belted out “ASS” for a packed auditorium, and still thought it was cool that I took Latin. He confessed that our friendship would be seen as a form of “rebellion”. I smiled, liking the idea of being his rebellion.

But even as we connected, I could sense that Greg held back. We said goodnight, and as I prepared to experience my first “real” kiss, he put out his hand to shake. I closed the door and 15 seconds later, he knocked. He kissed me, and asked if he could take me to dinner the following night.

The next day, he called to say he “had to tell me something” when we met that evening, but he didn’t want to say it over the phone. An hour later, he called to cancel. I never saw him again.

Years later, I learned Greg was gay. I’ll never know for sure what the “something” was he wanted to tell me, but I can guess. Growing up in his home, at his school, coming out was not a safe option. The irony is that if he had visited my home that night, he would have met my parents’ two dinner guests: a gay couple.

When I became pregnant with my first child, my thoughts turned to Greg. I promised myself that my husband and I would build a home where our children and their friends could be their full selves. The first time a boy from their high school came out to me, I felt honored by his trust. Recently, a high school senior, questioning her sexuality, called my home “safe”, and I found myself thinking of Greg again. I wish I could thank him for his guidance, helping me create a home of acceptance. I wonder if he found a safe person as a teen, or if he had to carry an important part of himself as a secret. I hope he found someone he could trust. I gladly would have given up being his girlfriend, in exchange for being his someone.

I wish he had told me.

All names and identifying information in this piece have been changed.

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Amy Kaufman Burk is an author and blogger. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, was written in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school, and follows one family’s journey after their daughter comes out. Her second novel, Tightwire, includes a strong friendship between a gay man and a straight man, as well as two women, a couple raising 2 children, who become role model parents to the main character. Amy’s blog has several posts in strong support of LGBTQ+. Check out Amy’s website to find links to her blog and her novels on Amazon.

http://amykaufmanburk.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Ally Support, coming out, LGBT, LGBT Pride Month, Teen