I went to the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1970s. One of my classmates was a guy named Steven A. Marquez.
I met Steve at a summer job, and we became pretty friendly. We didn’t have any classes in common, but we stayed in touch for the rest of our time at Penn. I can’t say we were really close; we never went out for beers together or anything like that, but I thought of him as my friend.
And I envied him a little. He wanted to be a newspaper reporter; I had dreams of becoming a writer. But while my dreams were just dreams, he was a positive zealot about becoming a newspaper reporter and was working hard to make it happen. And the paper he dreamed of writing for was the Philadelphia Daily News. He took English and journalism courses and was Managing Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian, the school newspaper. When a Daily News editor came to Penn to teach a journalism class, Steve was so there. He wrote a story for that course that moved the instructor to say that he wished the reporters working for him at the Daily News could produce work that good.
But it was tough to get work in journalism, even then. Steve told me senior year that he had mailed out his first batch of 100 resumes (that’s how we did it then) and gotten zero responses. (Today it’s much worse for journalists, of course, but still, that was pretty tough.) Just before graduation, he told me he had landed a job at the St. Petersburg Times. I wished him well, and we parted ways.
I never saw him again. I thought of him from time to time; I imagined him in sunny Florida, criss-crossing the Tampa Bay region, uncovering scandals. Then, eight years later, in 1987, I picked up a newspaper and read his obituary.
I was shocked. At the age of 29, you may have experienced the deaths of people much older than you, but that is way too early to be losing your peers. As I read the obituary, I learned that Steve had eventually landed his dream job at the Daily News and had returned to Philadelphia, where I was also living. He was making quite a name for himself at the paper (no surprise there), but then he had contracted a long and painful illness. He’d spent months in the hospital, slowly wasting away, until at last it took his life. He was 29, the same age I was.
He had died of complications from an HIV infection. He was mourned at the Daily News, and The Daily Pennsylvanian now has an annual journalism conference named after him.
Steve was gay. And I never knew it. He was dying nearby, and I never knew it. My wife and I had our first child in the same hospital where Steve was dying at the same time. And I never knew it.
The pain of his death, and the strange and roundabout way I learned of it, never left me. I am shaking right now, as I type these words. The shock of losing such a young friend is part of it. The regret I feel that I never got the chance to visit him in the hospital during his illness—which I certainly would have done, had I known—never diminished.
But the biggest shock of all was that Steve was gay and I had had no idea.
I had thought we were friends. I had thought I knew him fairly well. But only after his death did I learn that there was a whole side of his life I knew nothing about. And I didn’t know because Steve was afraid to tell me. He was afraid of what I might think. He was afraid I wouldn’t want to be his friend anymore. He was afraid of what would happen if his sexual orientation became common knowledge.
It was that fear that led to his not telling, which led to my not knowing, which led to my not being there at his side when he needed love and support, which led to the shock of my finding out about his death in a newspaper.
If you had told me, Steve, I would have been okay about it. Yes, the 1970s were very different, and I was a churchgoing young man from a rural community who had zero experience with LGBT people, and I probably would have freaked a little. But I wouldn’t have hated you. I wouldn’t have rejected you. I would have learned. I would have grown. I would have become a better person sooner, and a better friend to you. And I most certainly would have sat with you in the hospital, even held your hand.
But I don’t blame you. You had hard choices to make in the 1970s and you had career ambitions that were important to you. You wouldn’t have wanted anything to get in the way of that, and I fully understand. I blame the society that put you in that hard place. Sadly, both of us suffered for it.
And that brings me to #NationalComingOutDay. Coming out isn’t nearly the big deal it used to be. Times have changed quite a bit, as I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you. Coming out is easier, except perhaps for young people and people within certain communities.
But I share this story in the hope that it might reach someone who is still not yet “out.” I understand that you may be silent for good reasons. Your own safety and well-being may be at stake, just as it was for Steve. But I bet you also know someone in your life like me. Someone who might freak a little at first, but will not hate or reject you. Someone who will learn and grow from the experience, just as you will, and will stand with you when you need a friend.
If there is no such person in your life, then contact me. You can message me or email me or drop a note in the comments, and we’ll talk. i promise I won’t freak. I know it’s scary, but it’s the first step toward making it better. For both of us. For all of us.
It’s National Coming Out Day.