Op-Ed: My first gay role model

In 1995 I was 24 years old and I was still living with my family, including my overprotective mother. I was still at home in the closet. I had recently graduated from community college and I didn’t have a roadmap to follow.

Then my best friend and his girlfriend signed a lease on a two-bedroom apartment in Hollywood, and after she abandoned her plans to move in, I took her place. I got a job in a shop on Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica that sold furniture and custom framed art. We played disco music on Friday and Saturday nights and drunk shoppers stumbled in and occasionally passed out on the exhibition couches. I was alone, outdoors, single and gay, freed from the shame and guilt that had shaped so much of my youth.

I enjoyed my newfound independence. At night I would visit shabby bars along the darker corridors of Santa Monica Boulevard and have anonymous sexual encounters with men. I developed a newfound pride in my promiscuity, seeing it as a badge of honor. That’s the way it should be, I told myself.

There was a help center at the headquarters of the furniture retailer I worked for to deal with difficult customers and Brent was assigned to my business. At first he was a voice on the phone, patient and jovial on our daily calls to problem accounts. Soon our discussions turned into gossip sessions about random dramas in one of the other stores or the machinations of upper management at the main office. In the course of these conversations, Brent and I discovered that we share the same tastes in music (New Wave of the 80s) and television (reruns of “I Love Lucy” and “Twilight Zone”), among other things. We could recite entire scenes from “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “Muriel’s Wedding” by heart. We were born in the same year, our birthdays were just two days apart.

We spent long afternoons in Santa Clarita, where he lived with his partner Frank. Her two families were close by, and they all celebrated birthdays and holidays together, went on trips together, and had dinner together. Brent and Frank’s house was immaculately furnished. There were matching pillows on the couches, dining room chairs upholstered in custom fabric, the walls and side tables were full of pictures, and they slept in a large bed.

In his life, through his enduring relationship with Frank, I got a glimpse of what I might have. Brent became my first gay role model. We remained friends long after we both quit our jobs at the furniture retailer, even after he and Frank moved to Colorado in 2005.

In the past few years, Brent has been involved in a lawsuit against a former public employer who he alleged discriminated against because of his sexuality. The employer asserted the government’s immunity from discrimination claims, the only state law protecting LGBTQ workers at the time. The lawsuit went to the Colorado Supreme Court, which sided with Brent – this allowed his attorneys to advance the investigation to prove Brent’s case.

Some of his colleagues said they witnessed Brent’s LGBTQ discrimination by the employer. Eventually his employer settled down. In large part because of this year-long struggle, Colorado law now gives the state’s public employees equal remedies against discrimination and retaliation.

Last October, on a quiet Sunday evening when my partner and our dogs were sleeping in our bedroom, I received a text message from Frank: Brent passed away unexpectedly. He was here in Southern California when he died, staying with Frank’s parents, and visiting friends and family. I don’t know if I was on his schedule. I like to think that it was me.

The Brent Colorado lawsuit demonstrated how one person’s actions can affect an entire community. There is hope to see someone fight for the powerless with such zeal. The LGBTQ community will benefit from this in the years to come.

He also remained a role model outside of public life. Growing up I was taught that being gay is a deviation, something to be ashamed of, something not worth fighting for. Brent taught me the importance of facing my shame with humor and a clear head, overcoming it, and finding the better parts of me that I didn’t know were there.

Myself and countless others in a community that survives – and thrives – despite uncertainty and the bigotry we often face, will always remember its profound impact on our lives.

Alex Espinoza is the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at UC Riverside. His latest book is Cruising: An Intimate Tale of a Radical Pastime.

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