We sat there in the quiet hour before dusk. Snow was lightly falling outside. A fire crackled in the nearby wood stove. My two dogs were curled up at our feet, totally unaware of both the peace and turmoil drifting through the dimly-lit den as we faced each other.
I sat there at peace.
Jon sat there in turmoil.
I calmly reflected on my day of getting unruly kids to school. My truancy tracking program often took the wind out of my sails, and it was moments like this that I cherished.
Jon worriedly reflected on what his doctor discovered during a recent check up. At 14, he wasn’t prepared for the diagnosis.
“I have it,” Jon solemnly said.
I held my breath for that next ten seconds, slowly letting it out until my lungs were as empty as his dark eyes.
“You told me,” Jon said, “that I couldn’t keep messing around. You told me to at least be safe.”
I sat silent, waiting for him to continue.
“Usually,” Jon said, “positive stands for something good. But in this case, testing positive stands for just the opposite. But that is what my doctor said. HIV. Positive.”
I sat there, a little disconnected. It was like one of those frozen moments in time when the all-too-real springs up into your face and you find it difficult to recover from the blow that sent you reeling.
Jon shrugged, seemingly unaffected by the looming disaster that would take him out of this world in the near or distant future. “My doctor said I had five years at the most.”
To hear a 14-year-old gay boy talk about the end of his life was unsettling.
“I,” he continued, “don’t even know who burned me. I had so many unsafe encounters that I have no clue who it might have been. I mean, I have been racking my brain trying to figure out who might have been a carrier, but what difference does that make now? I can’t help thinking about all the others I might have infected. I imagine it might make a big difference to them to know that someone they had sex with might have burned them, too.”
I nodded, wondering if he even remembered how many kids and adults would be on that list. I knew Jon had been selling himself down at the Loop, in front of our State Capitol, for the past two years. Kids were his main partners, but he had many adult partners, as well.
Jon identified early on and had been sexually active since he was 6. He had experimented with many male partners before he was even 12, and when he reached puberty, he was already addicted to sexual activity.
The caseworker who called me to work with Jon informed me, “Jon has problems with his sexual preferences.”
On our first meeting, Jon hopped in my truck carrying a large purse. He was just 13 then and he was adamant that “preference” was definitely not the right word.
Jon told me it was his “orientation” to be gay. He told me “preference” indicated he had “chosen” this lifestyle or that he “preferred” being gay. Jon swore to me that this was not the case. Orientation meant that he was born this way and there was no preferring or choosing involved. As Jon said to me, “A dog is a dog. A cat is a cat. A dog cannot prefer to be a cat.”
Simple explanation, and as I got to know him better, I understood what he meant.
During that first meeting, Jon pulled a black dress out of his purse, panty hose, a bra, and a couple of hefty dish rags.
Trying to remain open-minded, I asked, “What are the dish rags for?”
Jon laughed. “Don’t you know anything? I am going dancing tonight and the dish rags are to stuff my bra with.”
I flippantly asked, “Why not just use tennis balls?”
Jon laughed, “That’s actually hilarious! That’s why I like you. You don’t know anything, do you? If I use tennis balls and I rub up against my partner, he will think I am aroused already! Dish rags are more subtle! You do not want your partner to think you are turned on before you even start to dance!”
Enlightened, I grinned and said, “God forbid.”
That next day, Jon went to school, walked into the girl’s rest-room, and put on his dress. He got in trouble for interrupting classes by parading up and down the halls. He also got into trouble after school, when several bullies tracked him down and lit his hair on fire. The hair spray he wore did not help the situation, and fortunately someone had the good sense to pour pop on Jon’s head to extinguish the flames.
At this point, his casework asked me to take Jon each Tuesday evening to the only support group for gay kids in the city. This was in 1989, and the support group met in a gay bar on O Street, the main drag of our capitol city. I was to remain discreet about these meetings as the caseworker knew if the public ever found out I was transporting a 13-year-old gay boy to a gay bar for his weekly support meeting, there would be hell to pay.
Unfortunately, Jon’s attendance of this support group was short-lived. His support group leader was a young gay man who called me one night after two months of Jon attending group. He was frustrated because no matter what he tried to do to persuade Jon to stop pursuing him as a sexual partner, Jon continued to come onto him. Jon liked guys with beards.
So with that not working out so well, I tried to include Jon on fishing trips and skateboarding ventures with some of my hard-core delinquents, but Jon’s mannerism’s and his arrogant attitude did not win him a popularity contest with them.
The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back came when one day five of my at-risk kids were painting my house. It was a scene right out of Tom Sawyer, with five tough, street-wise delinquents dabbing at my house with paint brushes. When Jon showed up there on his bike, the other five kids reluctantly let him join them.
Things were going good, too, until Jon lipped off to one of them, and in running to avoid an ass-kicking, he slipped and fell and cut his knee on a board. When I brought him a wet wash cloth to clean his bloody knee, one of the boys said, “Destroy that rag when he’s done or you might get AIDS!”
“Screw you!” Jon responded.
“No,” the other kid said, “you would like it too much!”
And it all went down hill from there.
Soon after that, Jon was booted out of his home and his caseworker was scrambling to find him a placement. Two gay men agreed to take Jon and even went through the foster care training, but the powers that be would not approve as they thought it would lead to a sexual abuse situation.
So Jon was moved into the home of a 66-year-old Grand-mother-type who would not allow him to come in her front door. She insisted instead that Jon use her backdoor for fear of what her neighbors would say about her having a gay youth as a resident. She also once slapped him on the hands with a ruler for getting milk out of the kitchen fridge.
I often wondered if placing Jon in the home of those two gay guys would have given him the type of support he needed. Because Grandma Jones sure wasn’t the right placement for a sexually active gay boy like Jon.
One day, when picking him up for school, I noticed bruising around his neck. When I asked him about it, Jon openly admitted he’d had an S and M session with a partner the night before. And choking him out was part of the session.
Several weeks later, Jon called me in the middle of the night to tell me of one of his sexual experiences with an older man. At 2AM, I was less receptive then he wanted me to be, and so he let me have it with telling me he’d been selling himself to boys and men on the Loop for the past year. He also told me he had been barebacking (no condoms), and that this relationship with this older man meant more to him than all his fooling around. He insisted that I at least understood the purpose of his call. To let me know that even though everyone in society condemned sex between men and boys, that this was one experience that wasn’t just about the sex.
I continued for the next several months to play cat and mouse with Jon, trying to steer him away from the Loop, but by then, I honestly think he was addicted to the sex.
One evening he came over to the house. He had a Michael Jackson tape with him and asked me if he could place it my tape machine and dance for me. I laughed at the absurdity of Jon doing the moon walk in my living room.
After I told him no, Jon went off to my den. Michael Jackson was soon blaring from the back den and my two dogs came scrambling through the kitchen and into the front room to avoid getting their sensitive ears blasted with Billy Jean and Thriller.
When Jon was done dancing, he came back out to the living room where I was watching a movie. He plopped himself down in front of me and promptly said, “I am ready to do you now!”
Awkward! echoed through my mind. Unbelievable! Bizarre! Definitely skating on thin, black ice. Time for Jon to go home and take a cold shower!
And that’s exactly what I told him.
Ironically, the next day, his caseworker called me and asked me if I would consider taking Jon for a foster placement. He told me that his time with Grandma Jones had come to an end, and he thought my home might be a better solution. He offered me $3,000 per month.
Now that was unheard of in those days.
My last foster placement was a special needs kid who netted me $1,400 per month, but that was because he came straight to my home from the group home he trashed in a psychotic rage. The kid had taken a shovel to all 19 windows in the house, on the coldest day of the winter, and on a weekend no less. It cost an astronomical fee to replace all those windows. So therefore, the caseworker set my payment extremely high to cover the cost of any damage the kid might do to my home. Fortunately, I only had one violent incident with the kid and it never involved a shovel and my windows. But I digress.
While I was slightly tempted at Jon’s caseworker’s offer of three grand per month, I shared with him the incident of the night before, and went on to say that I did not think I could continue to work with Jon. I told him that gay support leader had been right: Jon liked guys with beards.
The caseworker was disappointed that I did not accept his offer, but he did persuade me to continue working with Jon.
He set me up , too, pointing out all my many successes with many other state wards. At that point in time, I was the only truancy tracker in the city. And though it took me a long two years to consistently get 60-some delinquent kids to school, to court, to treatment, and to remain in their homes, by that third year, I had a proven track record.
I was ahead of my time, too, with a vision fulfilled. My caseworkers agreed with my plan to pay their wards $1 per day to go to school. They also agreed with my “skip days,” or as they became known, “mental health days,” in which if a kid had gone to school for 30 days straight, I rewarded them by allowing them to skip a day. I spent that day with them on a one-on-one basis, taking them to MacDonald’s, to a movie or out to skate or on a canoe trip down the Platte.
At first, kids dreaded to see me coming in the mornings. I not only woke them up with my motorized squirt pistol in hand, but I escorted them to school.
They also hated the fact that if they skipped once I got them there, their administrator had my pager number and they would not hesitate to call me and send me on the hunt for them.
Those kids did not ever appear in court again with a 3-month truancy problem. They did not have a chance to continue skipping, not when I networked with their caseworkers, probation officers, parents, and school staff.
It was magic. And it worked.
So the caseworker used my proven history with kids to convince me to continue trying to work my magic on Jon.
Jon continued to sell himself on the Loop.
And therefore, ended up in my den, telling me that he had tested positive for HIV.
His doctor had been right: Jon lived another five years before he died of AIDS complications at the age of 19.
The book that follows was written in memory of him.