That’s how old I was when my mom and Michael Kearns became friends. Long story short, they were both alumni of The Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, and he was making the rounds of the talk shows. This was back in the Phil Donohue and Tom Snyder days. Talk shows were the only thing my mother watched during the day, and never the Jerry Springer kind. She loathed soap operas (except Dark Shadows, when she was pregnant with me. Hmm….) and wouldn’t have watched a game show if it was the last thing on television. She saw Michael on the t.v. and wrote to him and he wrote back. She was an excellent writer and a real character. Letters turned into phone calls, and visits after performances in Chicago, and eventually into two family trips to L.A. to attend one-man shows that weren’t going to make it to the Windy City. And through all of it, this truth became evident: Michael was kind, talented, both fiercely intelligent and quick, funny, handsome and generous. He could appear happy in the moment but a deep sadness was detectable underneath his words. It wasn’t a stretch to figure out that what was causing him pain was the fact that he was misunderstood by a large portion of the world; that he’d been stereotyped and outright lied about by people who knew only one thing about him, that he was gay.
Harvey Milk was absolutely right. Gay people need to let straight people know that they are gay. I have no recollection of knowing homosexuality existed before my mother told me that Michael happened to be a man who fell in love with other men. I probably didn’t; I was a pretty sheltered kid otherwise, a bookworm who watched Little House on the Prairie (oh, the irony) and still played with Barbies and a dollhouse. (Play that involved complicated backstories and plots for casts of thousands, and almost nothing to do with clothes or shoes or hair.)
After getting to know Michael, in all his glorious complexity, I started noticing – and challenging – anti-gay propaganda. I knew it was bullshit because what they said didn’t match up with who I knew.
Since then I have been honored to know many more gay individuals. All saints? Hardly. For that matter, is Michael a saint? He’ll be the first to tell you no. Every friendship has served to underscore the truth I learned when I was nine, that believing you know a person just because you know one innate fact about them – be it gender, skin color, or sexual orientation — only highlights your own ignorance.