Da Doo Blog

How I Learned My Brother Was Gay

I’d like to think that forty years can change everything.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about how things have and haven’t changed.

I didn’t figure my brother was gay when he dressed up as a Girl Scout for a Boy Scout Halloween party (the first and last Boy Scout party he ever attended).  I just thought he was being terribly clever and besides, Milton Berle dressed up as women all the time – so no big deal.

I didn’t figure he was gay when it became clear that I rode a bike better than he did and that he applied my makeup better than I did.

And it wasn’t even the crap he took from the gym teacher for not being able to climb the ropes, or the teasing he got from boys on the block or the almost-as-difficult smothering he got from cooing moms.

First of all, I was three years younger and all I really knew was that Howard was talented, smart and my best protector, teacher and guide.

Also, by the time he was in high school he started dating girls.

And when he was in college he lived with a really nice and really sexy (even I could tell) woman named Maggie.  So it was all a bit confusing.

Then one summer I found a letter.  It was sitting – open I hasten to add – on the dining room table.  This was 1972 or so.  The letter was written to Howard from a girl – not Maggie – and it said something along the lines of, “I know you love Stuart and I understand and wish you much happiness…”  You get the drift.

It was a Dear John letter written by a Jane after John had told her about Jack…or something along those lines.

The letter was sitting out for all to see but Mom was at work so I took the letter, folded it up and put it in Howard’s dresser drawer.  It would be our little secret.  Which it was because Howard never said anything and never asked about a missing letter.

Okay so big deal, I knew.  It wasn’t exactly shocking, and in some way I think I was glad that I wouldn’t have to contend with a sister-in-law stealing Howard’s affections.  Please remember that I was young myself and maybe not entirely clear on how affections worked.

Flash forward a few years.  I have graduated from college and am planning to move to New York.  Howard and Stuart are already living there in a studio apartment that consisted of a square room, minuscule kitchen and bath and a Murphy bed.  I came for a visit one weekend and Howard sat me down for a chat.  Stuart had run out on some important but unspecified errand.

“Now that you’re moving to New York,” my brother began, a little portentously and very seriously, “we have to talk about something…”

I waited.

“I know you’ve been around theater yourself,” he said, “and you have lots of friends like Kenny (my very sweet, very flaming college roommate) and…”

“You’re gay,” I said.

He looked so disappointed.

“You know?” he asked.  “How did you know?”

I didn’t mention the Girl Scout costume or the gym teacher or the fact that he and Stuart had moved together to Indiana University and set up an apartment and life straight out of Barefoot In The Park.  I just told him about the letter.

He didn’t remember leaving it out or even receiving it.  But I think he was glad I had put it away when I did.  Or maybe he wasn’t, because we spent the rest of the night talking about whether Mom knew.

So Howard came out to his family and gradually his sexuality was no longer an issue, nor much of an interest to anyone outside of Howard and his partners.  Which was as it should be.   And which was how it remained until Howard was diagnosed as HIV positive.  Then once more the curtain was drawn.

What isn’t discussed much anymore, in the story of AIDS is the terrible isolation it brought.  And the secrecy.  Howard was afraid of losing his job and even I was sworn to secrecy – I too couldn’t tell the people I worked with why I was suddenly so angry and sad and taking such long phone calls from my brother.  Howard was afraid to tell his own writing partner, Alan Menken for so long.  We didn’t tell Mom until two years into his illness.

It wasn’t always because of fear of being ostracized – that was never a fear with Alan or Mom.  Some of it was because of Howard’s relative fame and some of it was one final bid for privacy, for keeping ones own counsel.  For not letting others have that last little piece of you.  And some of it, I think, was the fact of losing everything because of a sexually transmitted disease.

Much has changed and it’s clearly for the better.   But change for the better should never mean forgetting.  Diagnosis with AIDS no longer is a death sentence.  It is no longer to be hidden.  That should never have been the case.  But it was and to forget that is to dishonor far too many who were lost.









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Posted on: April 21st, 2011 by Sarah Ashman Gillespie 19 Comments

19 Responses

  1. Andrew Cooke says:

    I was just on a marathon of watching Disney Renaissance movies and, as always, I end up reading about the cast, crew, production details, etc. of the movies on Wikipedia. I just happened to click on his name and read a little bit about him and his life. It really hits home for me, being a gay male myself, when I realize how many good people we’ve lost over the years to that horrible disease. Especially come to find out that he played a part in the creation of films that have come to define my idyllic 90′s childhood. He isn’t forgotten. Thank you.

  2. Confused says:

    Please if you read these comments help me. I recently was on my families main base computer (I am currently on my personal laptop) I accidently clicked on my brother’s page. I only need to search something up really quickly so I didnt feel like switching to my profile. I did what I had to do, but then I wanted to add the site I had found to the favorites section. I clicked the ctrl+ h. That took me to the history. I swear I was not searching for this. I saw a porn site (mofosex). At first, I was like he is a boy who cares, but then I noticed it said gay twink..blah blahh. I clicked on it just to be sure that I had read correctly and sure enough it was two men having sex. I was completely shocked. I have a lesbian sister and she always saying that it impossible that she is the only gay one in the family. I always ignored her because I fidure it is like depression 1 out 5 kids or 20%. There are exactly five of us so it made sense. But seeing that made me sick and it has been plaguing me. It is all I can think about. I recently checked the history again and found gay porn up there again. The first time it was like 2 or 3 gay videoes, but the most recent time All the videoes were gay videoes except for like one. It didn’t bother me when my sister came out, but for some reason my big brother being gay really… IDK. It makes me feel weird. He is three years older than me and I have always kinda looked up to him until recently. When he begun high school, he wanted to be a marine. He dropped that dream and pretty much all of his other dreams, too. Now he is pretty much a loser. He sits at home and eats and he has developed a drug addiction to marijuana. I know they say you are born gay and I agree with that, but could my brother’s homosexuality have made him give up. I mean now they got rid of dont ask dont tell but when he wanted to join the marines it was more anti-gay. Growing up we adopted two of my cousins when their mom passed and they used to make fun of him all the time. I even used to join in with them. They used to make fun of him because he was overweight and call him gay and faggot. I wonder if we might have pushed him deep into the–for lack of a better word–closet. I never joined in on the gay jokes, but I still feel like I caused him back farther and farther into a corner.I know it was him watching the gay videoes because they showed up at times when it was only him and my 12 yr old sis at home or when he was alone. This saturday everyone will be gone, but him so I am going to check on more time to be sure. Please help me. I know how hard it is to come out, but it is even harder me to ask him if he is gay.

  3. mss says:

    You’re a good sister.

  4. Andrew Mayer says:

    Your brother’s work influenced my life and was the soundtrack to my childhood. It was only recently that I learned about his life, and soon realized I had much in common with him (I am also Jewish and gay). I am 26 years old now, and was 3 when “The Little Mermaid” was in theaters. Later of course we had the Beta video tape, and the cassette tape of the soundtrack to listen to in the car and on my Mickey Mouse tape recorder. I was infatuated with the movie and songs, and I had all the toys and video games. Maybe my obsession with “The Little Mermaid” was a very early sign of my homosexuality? Whatever the case may be, his work was instrumental to a generation of kids who grew up to love musicals, and along with Alan Menken, is probably the reason why Broadway musicals and shows like “Glee” are so popular today and touch every corner of our culture.

    Since learning about Howard Ashman’s life, I have told all of my friends who love Disney as much as I do about who he was and his legacy, so that more people can understand how important he was to our current musical culture. (Even when I studied abroad in Seville, Spain, I met Spaniards my age who were singing “Besala”, or “Kiss the Girl” in Spanish. His work is truly global!) Being a gay Jew myself, reading about his life and the way in which he died impacted me on an emotional and personal level. Now everytime I watch or hear lyrics to “Little Mermaid, “Beauty”, or “Aladdin”, I think of your brother. Just wanted to share this with you.

  5. Nicholas Grant says:

    Howard Ashman was one of my many inspirations to start dong film and writing songs for my own movies. And he
    will be missed no matter how long ago he died.

  6. Thank you for this. Very moving. What a great sister!

  7. worlds gym says:

    Hello there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this site before but after checking through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely happy I found it and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back frequently!

  8. “Wow, great blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Awesome.”

  9. Mike says:

    Umm, please excuse my math. That would be 20 years past. My apologies.

  10. Mike says:

    A touching story and I thank you for sharing it. I have only learned Howard’s name this evening after watching some extra features on my old Aladdin DVD. I am a closet Disney animation fan and now I know Howard is responsible for many tears shed and smiles… smiled this evening, and in the past. It sounds to me like what Howard has shared through his work, is just a small part of who he was. I am sad to only learn his name, 10 years after his passing, but I am grateful for how he has impacted my life, and for you, Sarah, to share this story.
    Thank you.

  11. Amy says:

    Very moving. Thank you for writing all this and this website. Howard seemed like he was an amazing person. I’ve just watched Waking Sleeping Beauty and loved the clips of Howard.

  12. “I Must Have Lost It On the Wind” Elton John’s song

    It’s hard when you loose people that you love, admire or want to meet.
    I was too young at that time to understand, but as a young dreamer/artist, I was looking all of them like nobody else.
    Years later, i became “an artist” I had the chance to know and understand more things.
    Here is my list of heroes, people that I admire, love and i want to honour. AIDS was their enemy…

    Steve Rubell 1989
    Freddie Mercury 1991
    Howard Ashman 1991
    Jorge Donn 1992

    Today I still cry for their loss, it affects me a lot, there is a strange feeling that I’m not able to explain…it’s like I knew them and i miss them.

    Thanks Mrs Sarah Ashman for sharing this blog and very nice website with all of us.

  13. Nancy Parent says:

    Really well-written piece. Very moving and touching. Thank you for this.

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