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Yesterday Harvey Milk was shot and murdered, along with our mayor, Moscone. My best friend, Ben, cried for an hour. Ben is a closet gay teenager attending an infamously homophobic high school. I’m just an awkward fifteen-year-old girl who can’t understand what he’s going through. I had no way to comfort him other than cry along.
Later, after the tears stopped falling he said he was going to come out tomorrow.
In front of the whole class.
At first I tried to dissuade him. But he wouldn’t listen to me. He had heard Harvey Milk’s “letter to be read in the case of his assassination.” The whole thing was about Harvey hoping everyone would just have the courage to come out and be who they really were. I guess this was just gonna be his way of living Harvey’s legacy.
“I have to do this.” He said to me after my first request for him not to do that to himself.
“But why?” I asked. I knew Ben, and I knew that he couldn’t handle abuse, verbal or physical. And he was sure to get both if he told everyone that he was gay, “All you’ll do is get yourself hurt.”
“Don’t you understand?” He almost shouted. He took a few steps closer so he could look me in the eye. “It doesn’t matter what happens to me as long as people realize what I am. It’s so I can help other gay kids at our school come to terms with who they are. I’m positive I’m not the only gay guy at school, and I have to let them know that they’re not either. That they’re not as alone and lost as they thought they were. Lizzie, you of all people should know how it is to feel like you’re the only one in a big huge universe where nothing really matters anyway. You should know how it feels to be alone. What happens to me isn’t really important, I’d rather get a black eye knowing that I’m doing something good for once, than just walk around staring at all the faces of people I could’ve helped in just some small way. But I’m scared shitless and you’re the only person who can help me through it so I’d really love your support.”
I couldn’t deny him that. Not when he’d be going through hell in just a couple of days.
“I just don’t want you to get hurt.” I finally said, “But you’re right. I guess this is something you need to do. Just… don’t be stupid about it ok?”
He pulled me into a reassuring hug and said into my ear, “Of course not, you’re the stupid one in this duo, Lizzie, not me.”
“Ha! You wish!”
We distracted ourselves the rest of the night, sleeping over at his house since his parents were out of town. While most teenagers would have taken this opportunity to throw some kind of huge party, ben and I just stayed up playing board games, eating popcorn and listening to our favorite bands like Pink Floyd and The Runaways. Words like gay, coming-out, assassinations, and homophobia were forgotten momentarily.
But now we’re in class and all those words are pounding through my head like a hammer on stone.
We had agreed that night that to get the message across the best Ben should come out during current events class. That way I would be in class to give him support, and we’d undoubtedly be going over Harvey Milk’s and George Moscone’s assassinations.
But now we’re in current events.
And I’m terrified.
Ben’s sitting next to me, biting his lower lip. He does that whenever he’s scared or nervous. The class has been talking about Harvey Milk for about ten minutes now and he still hasn’t said anything. If he doesn’t act soon he’ll lose his chance.
I turn my attention back to the teacher and manage to catch the last words of the sentence she was saying, “--- was a big advocate for gay rights and it’s a… shame he was killed yesterday.” Her voice curdles on the word shame; we all know she doesn’t give a damn about Harvey Milk.
One of the girls in class raises her hand.
“Yes, Emily?” The teacher says.
Emily smiles her annoying prim smile before saying, “I for one think it’s a good thing Milk is gone.”
I see Ben’s fist clench underneath the table.
“I mean,” Emily goes on, “It was horrible that he was murdered and everything, but the things that he was advocating was just so unnatural and disgusting that he shouldn’t have been in office in the first place.”
The class nods and responds with a chorus of “yeah”s and “That’s right”s and “disgusting”s.
Ben’s temple is throbbing.
Encouraged, another student speaks up, this time one of the popular guys who always has to put his two-bit in, “Emily’s right! If anything that guy, Dan White, the guy who killed Milk, shouldn’t be arrested. He was doing the public a favor!”
Ben looks absolutely livid.
“Imagine what he would’ve done next!?! What if he managed to pass something that would’ve let those freaks down in Castro Street go after little boys?”
Ben and I both gag on the poisonous words that were just spoken. We look desperately at each other, and I swear I see something break in him. Not a bad break, more of a new understanding. Like something was shattered that held him back from completely knowing what he meant when he said he wanted to help people.
I think he saw the same break in me. Because in that moment I truly understood what Ben wanted to do.
The guy goes for one more insult, “and what was all that crap he wrote about in his death letter or whatever, the stuff that said all the gay people should just come out. If you ask me they should do the world a favor and stay in the closet.
Ben stands up.
All eyes immediately turn towards him, expecting another slaughter on gay rights. Instead Ben just glares at the homophobic jerk, his body practically shaking with rage.
I reach out my hand to him, letting out fingers intertwine and grasp each other for support.
“You got a problem man?” The jerk asks, a smirk plain on his face.
“Yes.” Ben speaks through his teeth.
“What?” the jerk says maliciously, “You one of those gay freaks?”
I squeeze his hand.
Ben’s fingers tremble and his eyes got downcast but his lips turn up into a small almost invisible, scared, warm, sad, and hopeful smile.