Rick is more than my friend. He is like a son to me, I love him. We first met when he was a biology student, as I had been 25 years earlier. He also, like me, became involved in the university theater group. Eventually he became the leading force in the struggling theatre group and it began to blossom. He changed his major to Communication Studies and studied with me through the rest of his undergraduate career. He says that he must have enjoyed it, as he took my required groups class three times before finally deciding to complete it.
After graduating he began working on his MA in directing at another university. In the production that served as his final thesis project, I was a cast member. During the rehearsals he told us that he was HIV positive. We all knew that he was proudly and openly gay. But now we were all afraid that we would lose him. It hit me particularly hard. However, with the new treatments coming out he survived, and continues to survive. It has not been easy for him, but we have never lost faith in each other. He has accomplished a lot, including receiving the Distinguished Teaching Award for adjunct professors, and multiple awards for university service. He does more work than any full time faculty or staff member. And few at the university are more devoted to students. Yet, some time back he was told that they could no longer pay him for all the work that he was doing. Later he was reprimanded and threatened with dismissal when a former student he was trying to help got involved in an on campus incident. Telling him that I love him and that I think he is being poorly treated is not enough. Even if I can’t change things I can, and should, speak out more forcefully on his behalf.
There was another time when people kept quiet when something needed to be said. A much beloved priest at the university, one of the kindest people I have ever met, abruptly resigned from his post. He seemed to have vanished. After much questioning from me and others I discovered that he was ill. After more questioning I finally found out where is was. When I visited him, it was obvious that he was in the last stages of dying from AIDS. Yet no-one had said anything to any of us who had worked with him or cared about him. Why the silence? This was the early days of the epidemic, perhaps he had asked that it be kept quiet. Perhaps the Jesuit community was concerned about the implications of a priest with AIDS. Perhaps those who knew were trying to protect his privacy. I don’t know. What I do know is that if I had known earlier I might have been able to be more comforting and supportive, as he had so often been for me. I believe that both of us lost something in the time we missed being with each other.
Silence has a cost. It might be large or small. But one small thing after another eventually becomes a very big thing. We do need to let those who know us hear us, but we also need to let the larger world hear us as well. Speaking up might exact severe penalties. However, we must realize that the penalties for remaining silent are even more severe. So speak out, ignore those who caution silence, and say what needs to be said. Do not wait for others to go first, do it now, while there is still time.