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07/16/2007

Rest easy, old pal

by Jeremy Hooper

Back in college, this writer tended bar at a local club in Knoxville, TN. Anyone who has ever done such a job knows that it can be both a blessing and a curse. A curse, because you can find yourself stuck behind a bar having to keep a conversation going with someone with whom you, for whatever reason, would rather not be forced to talk. A blessing, because there are times when you get to meet some extremely interesting people, the likes of whom you might never have known had cosmic fate and/or happy hour not brought you two together. Russell Groff was in that latter category.

While others would sit at my bar ordering drinks, checking out the boys or girls, and discussing the drama of the day (all to the clap-happy beat of Cher's "Dark Lady"), Russell would more readily be found sitting on his stool writing some poetry or reading. I remember one time when I had an audition coming up for a show called "A Child's Christmas in Wales" (a holiday story through the eyes of poetry Dylan Thomas), Russell sat at the bar going through a collection of Thomas' poems, trying to find me the perfect audition piece. He was just a really nice guy who seemed to eat up art, individuality (with diff. hair colors every week), and life in general.

Another thing I knew about Russell -- His parents mercilessly rejected his "lifestyle." In fact, I believe this was what initially struck up a kinship between us, as I too (as many of you who saw my "In The Life" piece know) am no stranger to gay-based familial strife. Russell talked about his mother's non-acceptance (as well as the acceptance he experienced from his partner Kevin's family) often, and I know this aspect of his existence weighed heavily on him. Such tends to have that effect on even the best of us.

I only had the pleasure of knowing Rusell a short time, but he made a lasting imprint on my soul. Unfortunately, eventual reacquaintance is now impossible, as Rusell Groff passed away in 2004.

Kevin (who I never knew personally, yet anecdotally knew as the love of Russell's life) wrote me around the time of his death to let me know of his terribly sad passing. At the time it upset me greatly, despite the relatively brief time our paths had crossed, as well as the years that had passed since Russell's last bar tab. However, hearts and thoughts they fade (to quote Eddie Vedder), and the honest truth is that I have given less and less thought to my past Knoxville buddies with every year. Russell, like so many others pals of a college age gone by, has slowly become a casualty of my memory's inability to stave off the effects of time's passage.

Cut to Saturday, 7/14/07. I'm playing with my nephews out on Long Island, when my lovely new iPhone vibrates to alert him of a new message. Opening the Inbox, I see that what I have received is an email from the anti-gay Americans For Truth organization. Scanning the headline, I see that the missive pertains to potential Surgeon General James Holsinger, and how the AFT group is withdrawing their support for nominee because he is not acting in as gay-unfrinedly a manner as they had wished. I roll my eyes and open the body text, planning to give it a quit scan before deleting and returning to my game of backyard baseball. The attached message, however, has other plans for my afternoon:

Picture 6-71

Yes, in his attempts to demonize gays as sick and immoral and Dr. Holosinger's refusal to say so as his cowering to the hand of the gay movement, Americans For Truth's Peter LaBarbera has clumsily, disgustingly taken the death of someone he never knew and plastered his image and story across his website and email blasts. From reading the rest of the piece, Russell's mother Carolyn has reached out to Peter LaBarbera to use her son's death as a warning sign to gays and parents everywhere

Picture 8-49

Ms. Groff of course doesn't talk about the role her own non-acceptance could have played in her son's death. And she doesn't mention the fact that she is in a fierce battle with Russell's partner Kevin to go against Russell's dying wishes and have his remains moved to a burial plot she deems more suitable for her son. Instead, Peter and Carolyn apparently feel that the best way to remember a bright young man who succumbed to a cruel infection (even though his actual cause of death was a staph infection) is to demonize his life and his truth in absentia, rather than to lash out against this horrid disease that happened to have been introduced in the gay community earliest and hardest! They, of course, view this disease as some sort of divine punishment, so they feel they have carte blanche to just attack, attack, attack.

Cruel. Nasty. Immoral.

Peter LaBarbera seems to have absolutely no shame, and even less value for our lives. It would seem from her reaching out and selling her son's memory to the anti-gay movement (or her reported protesting of gay events), Ms. Groff shares the sentiment. When I saw that his mother has apparently been reaching out to LaBabs and demonizing him in absentia, it brought back vivid memories in my mind of those conversations that Russell and I shared, wherein he expressed (a) unhappiness over his parent's non-acceptance, yet (b) undying love and hope for those who had given him life. I know that if the situation had been reversed and it been those who shunned him who were robbed of their lives, his reaction would not be to attack them for the pain that they caused him in life. He would have mourned the fact that they went to their graves never reconciling their beliefs with his truth. It's a crying shame that Ms. Groff is so convinced that the son who she created made some sort of a choice rather than simply lived his truth, that she has to dishonor her beloved's memory in such a reprehensible manner!

I honestly can't help but wonder if Russell would still be here had he never known that pain and isolation that can come from a mother's shunning. I'm not going to speculate as to how Russell became infected. Such is not the issue at hand. But while the anti-gay movement denies the "blood" that's "on their hands" for so many of the gay community's ills, anyone who knows the pain of such rejection can easily connect the dots. It takes a virulent heart to present a virus as a punishment from a Christian God, and a damaged spirit to present one's death as some sort of culture war casualty.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

Americans For Truth Ends Support for Dr. Holsinger: “Nation’s Top Doctor Must Tell the Truth about Homosexual Health Risks” [AFT]

**The legal battle with Russell's parents has drained his partner Kevin of much, including cash. His legal fees are currently running $22,000, of which he has raised only $5,000. Anyone wishing to help out can read more here and make contributions to this address:

Kevin Olive Defense Fund
c/o Homewood Friends Meeting
3107 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21218

***For more, see Box Turtle Bulletin, Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters, and Bloggernista


***UPDATE, 8/15
: The Blade has a nice update on Kevin's legal fight to protect Russell's remains.

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Your thoughts

It's quite disgusting that they'd use Russel as a whipping boy for their own purposes and I'm glad you call them on their meanness.

And perhaps someone should setup a paypal account for Kevin. That's the only way I move money for the past few years.

Posted by: Tony Pelliccio | Jul 16, 2007 10:49:44 AM

TOny: Agreed about the Paypal. I've reached out to Kevin, so I'll certainly suggest it.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Jul 16, 2007 11:02:39 AM

It seems typical of the arrogance of con-artist, con-servative "Christians" to view their "religious" selections as supreme - even over loving their own children. If Carolyn Groff made the decision to worship the cruelty and evil of the Baptist Church over caring for her own son, that is a decision she now has to live with - not attempt to force others to compensate her conscience.

Her son was a legal adult who, as a free citizen, made his own choices to celebrate love and companionship and happiness and peace, despite what appears to be parental attempts to force misery. This is the part of our lives that no con-artist con-servative "Christian" likes to talk about - their active role in the aggressive destruction of families and their continued insistence that God has arrogantly bestowed that right upon them.

It should be obvious to Mrs. Groff and the likes of Peter LaBarbera that their attempts to recreate visions of Hell on this Earth for this couple are the kind of thing they may be facing themselves on their imagined Judgement Day. But LaBarbera, who never misses a single slimy, deceptive, manipulative, sleazy, vile trick in his quest to gain monetary profit by demonizing the gay community, once again shows the world his inability to comprehend such human experiences as love, compassion and honor. Nay. . .it is always most important for him to demonize the gay community not only throughout their lives, but to disgrace them and humiliate them even upon and after their deaths - all in the hope of a few extra coins being tossed into his purse by those who celebrate the dark side of their souls.

I hope people come out to support Kevin Olive. It is disgusting enough that, once again, a mother who chose to estrange herself from her son now insists on creating an illusion about his life - but even more, it is time to demand that the dignity of our existence no longer be tied to the chains of slime like Peter LaBarbera.

Posted by: Kevin | Jul 16, 2007 12:17:59 PM

Not much turns my stomach anymore in these debates, the indecency, in sensitivity and lack of integrity, while always frustrating and disturbing, don't seem surprising anymore. But this particular story, especially after reading the article over the lawsuit between the families, tore at me. This is what families and religion have become. It’s a poor sad statement of our times. I feel thankful and blessed to have parents with more heart then that.

Posted by: Patrick B | Jul 16, 2007 2:39:11 PM

youre research is very excellent

Posted by: heather grace | Jul 18, 2007 5:44:02 AM

Dear Jeremy,

I’m a 77-year-old gay man who’s been there and done most everything gay men have to do in a generally hate-thee-if-not-like-me culture, and I’m not easily impressed or moved. But I was moved to tears reading your beautiful tribute to your college friend Russell Groff. The affection and insight you gave was heartwarming and memorable.

I personalize deeply with your feelings because I stood at death’s revolving door when AIDS hit in the ‘80s, particularly when the love-of-my-life took sick and in little over a year died. I still remember the deafening sound of silence coming from the general population as I saw my beloved friend and so many of our friends drop.

I felt a special affection toward you after I saw your “In The Life” piece and started reading your blog every day and receiving from that a kind of gentle antidote that makes the day’s other commentary seem a little less dark and unsettling. I think you must be a very important figure in a lot of people’s lives because of what you do.

I wish you the best, always!
Bill

Posted by: Bill Carey | Jul 18, 2007 9:32:49 AM

Jeremy,

Please do let us know if a paypal account gets set up...that's the way I move money around too, and I would love to contribute. You've probably seen it, but Pete's got another article up today wherein he quotes a commenter from Pam's site. It's utterly ridiculous, but coming from Pete...I suppose it's what we should expect.

As others have commented, this was an excellently written post, and your heartfelt compassion for both Russell's memory and Kevin is clear.

Posted by: Kristen | Jul 18, 2007 4:10:44 PM

Hi All

I'm Russ' partner. Every so often I google his mother or his name (or mine) to see what's going on, how Russ has been remembered, etc. Thanks so much for the thoughts. We are currently in settlement. I've agreed to pull up the tombstone that had both his and my names on it and instead replace it with a stone that has only his name on it. I'm not sure what I'm doing with the old one; maybe I'll bury it in my plot. I also am having the estate copyright his poetry and plays. Eventually I'll be seeking help to get his works published; if only to get it published on line. His best friend Vicki is trying to find someone to take the play he began and finish it. It was read at Center Stage theatre at a memorial service they put on for him (over 100 people from the theatre community came) and people were left with open mouths (astonished at his talent and the loss).

I never really got to mourn. I went straight into defense mode against his mother. Unfortunately, the very person I would have loved to have turned to for support hates me. I keep hoping somehow she'll change and we can talk. I'd love that. She has so many stories to share, and I know so much about the adult son she never truly got to know. I'm sure she could tell me some funny stories about Russell as a kid that, if he were living still, he'd hate for her to share with me (those are the best stories). Lord knows my mother reserved the MOST personal stories to share with Russell!

Russell died a confessing Christian. He loved the historical Jesus for all that he did and stood for. He loved the living Christ for all that it does in transforming the human heart. He was a universalist in his views towards world religions, accepting all faiths as valid; but he loved his own Quaker Christian faith. He generally was the last to judge, though he was a very strong-willed guy. Trust me.

Tell him "no" or "you must" and . . . ha. right. It didn't happen.

THe beauty of our relationship was that we were truly yin and yang (me yang). He was more intelligent and educated than I am even now. I admired him more than anyone living and looked up to him though he was several years younger than me. It's an obvious statement to say that I miss him; the crying is less often (thankfully), but now three years later the pain is still a throbbing, physical one when it does surface.

Interestingly, though, the other day I was in the cellar of my house scrounging around through the dust from construction (my house began falling in right after Russell died -- well, we didn't know it until they looked behind walls to find entire support beams completely rotted or eaten by termites adn an major rear wall crubmling into the ground). That, plus my water heater leaked all over my otherwise dry basement (a rarity in Baltimore's older houses) and got everything wet (generally a safe place to store stuff). So anyway, I'm down there after having lived away from my house for almost a year, and I realize Russ' 3 year anniversary of his passing has, in fact, passed! I missed it! Then I realized, that I missed his "birthday" into the next life. I don't know what it is, but I know it exists (Russell has appeared to or his voice has been clearly heard by my cousin, my dad, a mutual friend (Quaker type) in Michigan, another friend of ours. Seriously. And mine is NOT a religious or even spiritual family. These experiences have changed us all. My whole family seems to be awakened to the fact that there is a reality beyond or overlapping this one).

Ok, so now you guys are all like "the Olives are nuts" (ha ha get it fruit n nuts? -- nevermind). But it's our experience.

Anyway, I'm mailing the check to the funeral company today to get the stone taken care of and will be taking care of the copyright soon. After that, it'll be over.

I really don't need anymore financial contributions. I've received roughtly $6000.00 and the total bills were only about $10,000.00 I can use what inheritance I receive to pay that off. Thank you, though.

If you'd like to leave flowers at his grave, it's at 1517 MeetingHouse Rd 37931 (Off Jenkins Rd in West Knox). The cemetery is sort of in the woods but if you look carefully to the left, RIGHT after the field, you can find it. It's right by the Quaker meeting house.

Russ likes visitors ;)

Posted by: Kevin-Douglas Olive | Dec 13, 2007 12:38:54 PM

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