Wednesday, June 9, 1982
In the news in Tulsa, Oklahoma:
“Rotarians change laws to allow black members.”
“She doesn’t like going steady rules.”
“Gelatin salads add pizzazz to meal.”
This month, E.T., Poltergeist, and Blade Runner are in the theater; on Dynasty, Steven is in the hospital with Alexis and Blake at his side, and Krystle feels left out.
Your horoscope: “Emotions tend to dominate logic. Applies especially in romance department. Young persons, including children, figure prominently. Temptation is to speculate.”
It is Wednesday morning and, 1,914 years ago, Nero committed suicide.
And so, incidentally, did you.
* * *
Dear Uncle Ronnie,
I haven’t written in a few years. I’m sorry. I’ve been busy. Busy living, busy keeping on, busy loving and raising my kids and working and dreaming.
Maybe you can remember what all that was like? I still miss you. I’m the same age now that you were when you did it. The weather at Will Rogers World Airport, June 9, 1982:
High of 91 degrees, low of 75.
Snow depth, N/A.
I was only 7 years old, living in Denver, and we were up in the mountains because school was out and we had a home up there. I still remember that my dad and mom and brother and I were taking a walk on the side of Buffalo Mountain and our friends, the Laceys, saw us. Their faces looked worried, and they told us the Roberts family had been trying to reach us, and then my dad sat with me and my brother while my mom went into another room to use the phone, and when she came out you could see she’d been crying.
But that’s the thing, Uncle Ronnie. My mother doesn’t cry. Not for you, and especially not for me. She just doesn’t do that. I was 7 and I’d never seen her cry but there they were, those streaks messing up her makeup. It would be ten years before I’d see those tears again.
I guess I’m still angry with you. I was really angry 6 years ago, the first time I wrote you. Back then, in December 2005, just before Christmas, I was moving out from the home I’d shared with my wife and Brokeback Mountain was playing in the theater and I was crying over the loss of my first boyfriend, the first man I loved. I know. It’s backwards, moving out from your soon-to-be-ex-wife and already losing your first boyfriend, but then, I’m a Cancer, not a balanced Libra like you; they say we live life backwards.
Maybe it’s true. While I was married, that’s when I dated the most men, if you can call arranging hookups a date, and it was after the divorce that I really tried to love a man. First this one, then that one. Finally, just a few weeks ago, I got engaged to my boyfriend.
Have I told you about him? He’s really handsome. He helps do the dishes, and he’s great with the kids. We’re going to get married in May of next year. We’ll have a big party here in Dallas and then we’ll fly to New York where, well, you’d be shocked to know that it’s legal—we can legally get married in New York. Imagine that. Following the ceremony, we’re going to Spain for our honeymoon to hike around the Pyrenees. It’s legal there too, by the way. No joke.
Did you know that Nero was married, too? To a man? Or, rather, to his puer delicatus, which means essentially his younger love slave, a guy, a really handsome one apparently. First Nero had him castrated and then, then he fell in love with him (I’m thinking you don’t fall in love and then decide to castrate someone, after all). Nero loved Sporus and married him in public, with all the same rites and everything, like everybody else. It was a huge public ceremony, with dances, feasts, the usual.
Maybe you knew that. You might have. You did, after all, know 5 languages fluently and several more you could “get around” in. You did, or so I hear, get around, didn’t you? That’s what I’ve heard. I’ve talked to a lot of people in the last 6 years, interviewed your old friends, your minister, your ex- wife. I talked to guys online who say they knew you. From what I gather, you were a lot like me.
It was, after all, 1982. The country was in a dark mood. The New York Times, a year after our own recession hit in 2008, said that it was pretty bad but not as bad as 1982. And, come to think of it, those movies playing weren’t so hopeful either—ghosts haunting a little girl through a television, a movie where Harrison Ford’s best shot at love is with a robot. When the “hopeful” movie is E.T.—which suggests that humans are so cruel to cute extra-terrestrials that they have to employ gangs of children to rescue them—you know you’re hard up. I’ve often thought gays are like little extra-terrestrials, growing up in human homes, finally realizing there are others out there like us, and, finally, one day, we decide to phone home. Is that what you did on that country road? Is that what that gunshot wound was? A phone call?
“Roberts’ body was found early Wednesday in the front seat of his car near old Barnsdall 55 school about five miles northwest of Tulsa in Osage County.
* * *
I read a little pamphlet the other day that my grandmother Munna (Evelyn), your mother, wrote about the day you died. She got the date wrong. I’m sorry, Uncle. Your mother, my mother–they’re not exactly attentive to their gay kids. In the pamphlet, “Suicide: A Double Grief,” she said it was June 8, a Tuesday, and that Oral and your brother Richard told her around 11 a.m. So she got the date wrong; I can forgive that. I forget my own birthday sometimes. She also wrote something else, though, which is harder for me to forgive: “For years Ronnie had been on drugs. We knew that. We had tried every way we knew to get him off. We had prayed with him and for him. We had sent him to a place where they tried to get him off drugs.” But, in fact, they didn’t send you anywhere, did they? You asked them to help you, and they sent you away with a $100 bill. They didn’t want you in rehab. It would get in the paper. They didn’t want scandal. Or that’s what I was told anyway, by several family members.
What’s the truth? There’s no record you were ever in rehab, but there’s no record of that $100 bill either. There used to be a record of Munna’s pamphlet—it was once a part of the ORU website— you could search the title on Google and it would lead you to a webpage with the full text. And then, after I broke the news that your suicide was much more complicated than merely “drug-related,” that webpage disappeared.
I had to get my copy off eBay for $25; some little old lady was going through her attic and selling off stuff like that, and I bought it. Pretty expensive for a 15-page pamphlet, but it’s a piece of you, after all, so it was worth it.
“Certainly, no child was ever raised in a stronger atmosphere of moral exhortation and religious preachments than Ronald Roberts.” That’s what the Tulsa Tribune said, on Friday, June 11, the day after your funeral, in the editorial page. Local papers were pretty quiet about the whole thing, even though Munna wrote that “every newspaper from coast to coast carried the story.” I love my Munna; she was one of my favorite people on Earth, and I miss her terribly, but you and I both know she had a persecution complex, like much of my family. People were after us; if the news wasn’t kind then it was the liberal media savaging us for reasons we couldn’t fathom. Anyway, I was in Tulsa last summer and I got out the old microfiche files of the Tulsa World and the Tribune (that’s gone now, by the way, if you haven’t heard) and they didn’t say much. The World had a half-page piece on the 10th, and the Tribune waited until you were buried, then ran a four-paragraph editorial on the 11th:
“But these things happen, as one says, ‘even in the best of families.’ There will be those who say that the very prominence of the father may have contributed to Ronald Roberts’ despair at his self-worth. Perhaps, but prominence is not a crime and there are dark compulsions and motives that amateur psychiatrists little understand.”
Indeed. Dark compulsions, you say?
Did you actually know that the date you decided to do it was the same day Nero offed himself? Or was it just coincidence? You were a really bright man, well-read. A teacher, you loved English and linguistics and history. You read about Nero.
The Roman Senate, according to Seutonius, had declared Nero a public enemy, and condemned him to death in the “ancient style.” Seutonius continues with the tale:
“Nero asked what ‘ancient style’ meant, and learned that the executioners stripped their victim naked, thrust his head into a wooden fork, and then flogged him to death with sticks. In terror he snatched up the two daggers which he brought along and tried their points; but threw them down again, protesting that the final hour had not yet come. Then he begged Sporus to weep and mourn for him, but also begged one of the other three to set him an example by committing suicide first.”
Poor Sporus. Nero eventually had a servant help him stab himself in the throat, and died shortly thereafter, and we hear all about how he was buried, even what clothes he was buried in, but Seutonius didn’t seem very interested in Sporus—the story on him remains untold. We know hardly anything about him.
I’ve talked to several of your lovers, Ronnie, and none of them would even give me their name. One of them agreed to meet me in person at a diner and then, at the last minute, bailed. Then he wouldn’t answer his phone. Family members mentioned some guy named Paul, saying he lived with you that last year you were alive, but that was before I was writing about you and now they, too, have clammed up.
Me, I’m gay, and it’s 2011, and there’s nothing indecent about being a man in love with a man, and polls say, get this, that over 50 percent agree that love between two men or two women is the same as love between a man and a woman. These days, my lovers would probably talk.
Of course, there are still wide clusters of people who don’t accept homosexuality. My marriage won’t be legal in Texas, where I live with my three children, so it’s a sticky situation. My ex-wife has always threatened to sue if I decided to live with my boyfriend or get married … she started throwing that threat around six years ago, and mentioned it again just a few months ago on the telephone. In Dallas, thank God, family law judges have been dealing with gay couples for decades and you really can’t sue to take children away from their father just because he’s gay. Or, correction, you can sue, but you won’t win, and no lawyer worth their salt will even take the case.
* * *
Dear Uncle Ronnie,
Let me start over. First, I want to apologize. When I first started writing you—six years ago, if you can believe that—I was really pissed off. I don’t think that I really believed that things would get better. I was getting divorced and coming out because my marriage had fallen apart, and I was gay, and there didn’t seem any other honest option, but I wasn’t happy or at all optimistic about it.
I was still unable to step outside of that world you and I grew up in, that world where the idea of two men or two women falling in love and raising children and spending a life together not only seems impossible, it seems completely unimaginable. I came out, I was single, and I was determined to be a good father, but the rest, well, let’s just say I assumed the worst.
And I got a pretty nice surprise. Things finally did take a turn for the better but I guess, as usual, they had to get worse before they got better. In some ways, I had to experience the passing of both your parents, my Andy and Munna, aka Oral and Evelyn Roberts, before I could really let it all go.
My Munna died in 2005. It was spring, I remember well. I cried for about a month. And, after that, well, that’s when my wife and I separated. I went to Munna’s funeral and there was a tent for the family and an armed security guard refused to let me in. It kind of reminded me of the angel that bars the gate to paradise, because there I was, teary-eyed, and wanting to sit with my family and close to my Munna’s casket, and there was this guard, telling me, “No.” That’s probably what pushed me over the edge, that’s probably why I came out, that’s probably why, six months later, in December, I was moving out and starting over.
A few years later, in 2009, Oral died. Yeah, your dad. He died and I went to his funeral and it was pretty miserable. At the graveside service my mother (your sister, Roberta) said that her dad was basically an awful father but that she appreciated the fact that he helped a lot of other people out with his ministry. I can’t blame her for that assessment; you probably wouldn’t have been as kind. And then Uncle Richard got up and talked about how he had this pair of Oral’s boots in his closet and how they didn’t fit him, and then his wife Lindsay (did you ever meet her?) said “Richard, try on those boots!” and, sure enough, they fit. When you were in high school, Oral used to bring you up on stage and tell everybody you were going to be his successor, but then, yeah, you kind of screwed up his plans. Richard wore your boots, until a scandal with the university’s finances forced him to step down.
When Oral died, I came up for the funeral. At the public ceremony, in front of 4,000 people, my mom told me I was going to Hell. No wonder you’re not around anymore. She always said you were her favorite and I was just like you. I think she has some resentment issues.
The good news is that, about a year after Oral died, this guy named Dan Savage created something called the “It Gets Better” project. I decided to make a video, and I read my first letter to you, out loud, on YouTube (it’s kind of like the TV of the future, or pretty close anyway) and I had about a week of panic attacks, I was terrified, putting something like that out there. Since then, gay teenagers across the country have been writing me and Dan Savage and the thousands of other people who’ve made these videos. There’s an It Gets Better book now, and I just heard from an 18-year-old at a Catholic college who was given a copy by one of the priests. The It Gets Better book is in every big bookstore in America, displayed prominently. I doubt you can really imagine that.
So, yeah, things are getting better. It’s slow, and, well, a lot of it might be hard for you to understand. But men like Oral Roberts are just not that big anymore. Jerry Falwell died, too. All the guys who were big in your day, going off about homosexuality, well, they’re losing it. Most people laugh at them now.
It’s been six years since I came out, and I’ve been through hell since then, but I’ve made it. I’m engaged. My kids are doing awesome. My boyfriend (oops, fiancé, I mean) is great, and his whole family loves me, and they’ve all embraced me as a family member. I’m out at work. I’m out on television, and when I go to my youngest daughter’s softball games, sometimes some of the moms come talk to me about my advocacy work.
I love you, Uncle Ronnie. Times are different now, and I wish you could have stuck around, but I’m not angry anymore. I know it was a lot harder for you than it was for me. I’m now the same age you were when you took your last breath, so I’ve been thinking about you a lot. And, when I do get married, this May, it’ll be 30 years since you left us, almost to the day, and on June 9th I might be in New York or Spain, somewhere where my marriage to the best man I’ve ever met will actually be legal, and then I’ll come home and kiss and hug my kiddos and we’ll all live happily ever after. Or something like that. If you had a Facebook page I’d show you pictures. You can look over my shoulder anytime you want. You can live vicariously through me, it’s OK. I think I always wanted that.
I think I have everything I’ve ever dreamed of, and I think you’re right here beside me. I know it, actually. Thank you for standing by me. It helps.