I don't know where to start. My friend Spencer Cox is dead. My first reaction to the news was to admonish him, on Facebook, that he wasn't allowed to die, dammit, and if he'd just admit it was one of his jokes I wouldn't be mad. Because. It couldn't be true.
"What would give light must endure burning." - Viktor Frankl
I met him in 1985, at the Georgia Governor's Honors program. We were admitted in a particular major, based on nominations and competitive applications and interviews, then we could choose a minor. Six hundred high school students from across the state, and even in that crowd of bright and talented teenagers he stood out, like a shooting star wisecracking across the sky. We were Philosophy minors together. He was loud, alternately vulgar and erudite (sometimes both at the same time), fast-talking, vivid, good-looking, charismatic, and kind.
"Always be a first-rate version of yourself, and not a second-rate version of someone else." - Judy Garland
He was also gay, and quite vocally so. This was Georgia, in the mid-Eighties; this was high school. Many of us had never met someone who was openly gay in person...even those of us who were gay ourselves. It didn't quite register with me then how brave he was to be that open; I think I just figured things were different in Atlanta. They were, but not that much. He was just fearless.
I remember him as a laughing, dark-haired dark-eyed boy, full of energy, one of the elusive Drama majors (they were always in rehearsal). According to him, I was so weird he decided I was going to be the next Flannery O'Connor.
I'm not Flannery O'Connor yet, and I'm in my forties. Like Spencer. Flannery died in her forties. Like Spencer. I still have time, maybe. I don't know. No one is guaranteed tomorrow. I think creative people fear dying with our art unmade, we scribble and paint and act against the darkness.
"Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter. Few have stared at that long enough to accept that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliche or a smoothing down that will soften their real look.” - Flannery O'Connor
I am wary of making him out to be a saint (I can hear his voice in my head saying, "Why not? Go ahead and write me a fagiography, honey") but what I mean is that we polish real goodness up until it seems unattainable. Spencer as an adult was a chain-smoking, debaucherous enfant terrible with a scathing wit so sharp it could sever limbs. He could be maddening and, in the words of many of the descriptions of him written in the last 24 hours, caustic. He was also a genuinely decent and compassionate human being who accomplished real, valuable and lasting good in the world, not merely for his immediate circle or community (which is the normal lot of even the best people) but for literal millions he didn't know and will never know. He was valiant. He looked killing bigotry in the eye, battled it and won.
You and I could be like that, even a little. We don't have to be perfect, be even-tempered, or have our closets organized before we are allowed to accomplish great and valuable things. Not everyone has his gifts, but I believe that he accomplished what he did through a combination of cussedness and moral compass. I believe those are available to all of us, like grace.
"All we can do is go around telling the truth." - Carson McCullers
Many of us who knew him when we were young have said that he changed our lives. He didn't do it with a self-help book or a weight loss program or a religion. I don't think he did it on purpose. He did it by being himself.
I was raised Southern Baptist when that was very different than it is now, at least in some places. They used to ordain women. My predominantly white church, in a tiny place in north Georgia that wasn't even a town, was attended by a black man. We had a copy of Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret in our church library. The Fundamentalists had taken over the Southern Baptist Convention in 1981, the same year I was baptized, but had not yet consolidated their grip over the denomination or run the moderates out. This is context.
The local churches in Valdosta would come and get students from the Governor's Honors Program for services. I decided to go, possibly so that if my mother asked if I'd been I could say, "Yes." I had already experienced creeping Fundamentalism, mostly from my friends at school. People I had known since kindergarten were telling me that Satan was in rock music and role-playing games and starting to go to the Church of God and being loudly Christian in a way that made me want to bring up Matthew 6:5. None of that prepared me.
The church I went to first of all had posters on the wall of their Sunday School room depicting the racist interpretation of the Curse of Ham, which I had never seen before and it shocked me. I didn't feel sure enough of my ground to challenge anyone over it; I was conscious of being far from home and dependent on someone else to get back to campus. I remember wondering if there was a way for me to leave without causing a big stir.
There wasn't. I went to services, where the preacher proceeded to declare that America was fighting God's enemies and therefore all our wars were justified and therefore anyone who didn't believe that was against God.
Being the same person who stood up in my eighth grade class and told off the teacher when he said that women should keep to their place, I seriously considered standing up and saying something. But it was not my church. It was most definitely, decidedly, unequivocally not my church, and I was sixteen. I kept my mouth shut.
When I got back to campus, I was incoherent with outrage. I saw Spencer and made a beeline for him, because of all the people there I figured he would understand. I sputtered out some kind of report of what had happened, and expressed regret that I had not said anything.
He laughed, said, "Oh, I love you" and hugged me.
I was bemused. I wasn't sure what I had done to earn this praise. Generally speaking, growing up girl in the South means you get told to "be nice" a lot. Righteous anger in women is not viewed with favor by the world at large.
Spencer thought it was awesome.
It was just a little thing, but little things can be important. I was frequently ferociously indignant in the way that only an idealistic teenager can be, and most people tended to argue with me or temporize or smooth it over or present the other side of the story as if I didn't know it or generally let me know that it made them uncomfortable. My parents did not discourage me, but they didn't explicitly encourage me either. Spencer is one of the first people I can remember listening to me rave about something that was wrong in the world and expressing effusive approval. I mean, my eighth grade class applauded, but my teacher gave me the first D of my life and got away with it, so that reaction was mixed.
Perhaps more importantly, he did not offer a critique. He didn't tell me what I should have done, or what he would have done in my place. He loved my indignation and regret, and didn't second-guess me.
It was a shift in perspective, leading to a shift in thought, leading eventually to a shift in action. I came to believe that speaking up was not just OK, it was vitally important, and that in fact we have a moral obligation to speak up when things are not right. While many moments and many ideas have reinforced my convictions along the way, that conversation was one that stands out in my mind, twenty-seven years later. I'm pretty sure that Spencer was not trying to impart a moral precept. He was just being himself, true as an arrow.
This is what we mean when we say that knowing Spencer changed us.
"SILENCE = DEATH" -- AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power
They meant it literally, in the case of AIDS; the silence surrounding the disease, the unwillingness of politicians to even mention it except in opprobrium and bigoted rhetoric, the dearth of public outcry; all this meant that people were dying...and would continue to die unless something changed. That was a stark example of a universal truth. Much of the time it is more subtle. Silence in the face of abuse, of corruption, of injustice, of hatred, leads to death of the spirit.
Spencer and the other people who were part of ACT UP and TAG might have been fighting for their lives and in some cases losing them. Many of them died of the disease before the treatments he helped bring about became available. Spencer now is gone too.
But they were not silent. They acted up, they spoke out, they fought AIDS. Their spirits were and remain very much alive.
Speak up. It is the only way. Speak truth. It matters.
"How can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind?"--Carson McCullers