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Jack T. Dawson, Activist and Lover

Jack Dawson and Josh Thomas, wedding night, Dec. 6, 1990

I have written two pieces on the final illness and death of my lover and husband, Jack Dawson, a eulogy and a thank you letter, but I’m struck by how inadequately I describe him. I’m a professional writer; can I not apply my wordsmithing skills to a subject I know better than any other?

What was it about him that made him special; that made me marry him?

Why, on his last day on earth, did ten people go to him, none related by blood? How is it he touched so many people with his goodness?

Some of the gang from Simon Says, a Cincinnati Gay bar, were there that last day; he worked there in some minor capacity, counting the money, making bank deposits. When he was done he would hang out awhile; the crowd at Simon’s became a substitute family, for which I thank them all.

But even being “family” isn’t enough to get most barflies into the hospital room of a man who’s dying; Americans avoid the dying, we don’t go and sit with them. Yet several friends from Simon’s were there, and the owner sat with him till the end.

I’m very grateful; I couldn’t or wouldn’t be with him. I was told he wasn’t conscious, “heavily sedated.” I wasn’t going to go for one last look at him if I couldn’t do anything for him. Something about that just strikes me as obscene. He would not have liked being on display when I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years—though I’m equally sure he was glad his day-to-day friends were there.

The necessary elements for me to visit him were beyond his power: looking into each other’s eyes; holding each other. If we couldn’t do that he wouldn’t want me there.

The last time we saw each other a few years ago, I was shocked by the tenderness we felt for each other; it was almost confusing, disorienting, how dear we still were to each other. I remember a thousand gentle touches and whispered thoughts. We clung together and spoke softly. We hadn’t lived together in ten years, we’d both “moved on with our lives,” and yet… there he was, and I loved him; there I was, and he loved me the same way.

Where did he get such sweetness? It was a gift from God, which can’t otherwise be explained. It was Jack’s own personality that attracted so many people, and when I consider the hard knocks he got growing up, that “personality” also seems a decision, a whole series of choices he made along the way. He would be himself; he would be considerate of others; he would listen; he would care—and he would act.

Everyone from the bar who traveled to that hospital room was on the receiving end of Jack’s caring at one time or another; multiple times.

And so was I on the receiving end of it for eight great and miserable years. He put up with a lot from me. Life with Josh was exciting and maddening, either easy or hard, no in between; he called me “high maintenance,” but for eight good years he maintained.

We never fought, not once. We disagreed plenty of times, but we kept talking; we were fair to each other. He raised his voice to me twice in eight years; both times I dropped what I was doing and rushed to him, because if Jack was yelling at me I had to have screwed up bigtime.

By yelling I mean two sentences at most, not a prolonged screamfest. The minute he got my attention he went back to a reasonable tone. That was a very good thing about our discussions; we were always fair and considerate. I had to do most of the emotional work when we were young, but he would cooperate, he would answer, he would help move us to a resolution.

The illness that resulted in multiple amputations was of course a huge challenge for us. He probably wasn’t as disclosive as he could have been, but half the time he was just struggling to survive. When you’re sick you’re not up for relationship therapy, you want to go to bed.

The illness, vasculitis, not only messed up his body, it screwed with his head. It scrambled his sexuality in ways I’m not sure he understood. I didn’t either. I was 35, young and halfway cute when he got sick; no matter how much I begged (he was the same guy; why would we not?), he’d never have sex with me again.

It seemed like shame working on his mind. I’m told he eventually got over it, but not with me.

Despite no sex, the last year we were together was the happiest year of my life; I didn’t see the separation coming, and I was devastated. But he wanted to go back to Cincinnati, and he needed to be independent, if he was ever going to regain a sense of self. He never said it that way, but that’s my conclusion. He was getting way too comfy in that wheelchair, having me do things for him. I’m proud of his independence since then.

Our separation was the most amicable one in Gay history. We worked everything out in one night, then we took our time. I was able to set him up in his own apartment back at the Roanoke, the same fleabag apartment house I rescued him from years before. He loved Clifton and did very well there for years.

We kept in pretty close touch, although our contact diminished as the years went by. All his friends know that when he was hurting physically or mentally, he tended to isolate himself.

When a person is depressed and will not say so to the closest people he has, there isn’t much you can do. It is horribly depressing to watch your body parts get chopped off; he went through that 8 or 10 or 12 times, we lost count. He went from being a good amateur athlete to being a “crip” in one year. It’s a hard adjustment and it does play on your mind.

So I suppose he did the right thing and cut loose the high-maintenance, high-ambition lover; if it saved his life I’d have voted for it too. It’s not his fault I was never the same; I’m not sure he was prepared for the permanent commitment I brought.

The thing I am proudest of and take no credit for is his advocacy for people with disabilities. He made it his mission to tear down the barriers for others with mobility problems. It came from the same place in his mind and his values that gave rise to his earlier Gay activism. Not only was he not going to suffer in silence as his rights were denied, he spoke up for everyone else. He led his city as he’d led his community. As LGBT people we’re very aware of our pain and suffering, and how they’re derived from politics and big business; we’re not so aware of the pain and suffering of others, the people even less visible than we are. Jack was aware. Jack was a leader.

I need to linger a moment on a word I just wrote; about his values. They were what made me fall in love with him.

My probing questions on our first official date, at that restaurant on Ludlow Avenue as I “measured him for loverhood,” revealed what made Jack Dawson tick. I’m a liberal Democrat; he was a liberal Democrat. I’m an Episcopalian, he was, uh, not. He was raised Catholic and saw through it before he was ten. But still when we came to be married, he was cool with my faith, especially if his pal Wayland Melton could officiate.

Jack was openly Gay and believed he had a responsibility—that we all have a responsibility—to make things better for the next generation of LGBT people. He wasn’t interested in material goods or the latest pop culture. He wasn’t, in short, the kind of fag you see portrayed in fag fiction, superficial and heartless and selfish. He knew better than that; he saw better than that even in the bar crowd at Simon Says. He looked for the good in people, and he found it.

He also understood evil and worked to prevent it. And though doctors might remove his toes and feet and ankles and shins, they could not remove his backbone. He kept that to the end. He had courage from his brainstem to his ass.

He was loyal to me, protective of me, kind to me, loving; and in my horrible grief which runs deeper than I can fathom or write about, I will always cherish our last visit with all our tenderness. We sat together in the same church where his memorial will be held. We went to a restaurant afterwards, snuggled and whispered. The next day we went to Simon Says and had a few drinks so I could see the new life he’d built, the friends he’d made, so we could have a few last hours together before I drove home to Indiana. I picked him up at his apartment to go to the bar, and while he was getting ready I noticed a piece of mail with his new name on it; I knew he’d changed his last name from Ferguson back to Dawson after his adoptive mother Kitty died, but I didn’t know he’d added a new middle name. I asked about it.

“Oh,” he said, “I didn’t tell you? It’s for you.”

No, mister, you didn’t mention it, when it’s only the most important fact in my Gay life.

We separated, but we never broke up; he named himself Jack Thomas Dawson to show he was still married to me.++

The man I married is dying. The priest says to write a thank you letter.

Jack Thomas Dawson on our wedding night, 1990.

Dear Jack,

Thank you for being in my life.

Thank you for chasing me down at a party on December 6, 1985. I can still picture us sitting there on the couch that night, in your apartment on the third floor of the Roanoke. I sat on the left end, you sat on the right, we faced each other and talked for two hours after everyone else had left.

I didn’t want to go to that party; Liz had to talk me into it. Then once I met you, I didn’t want to leave.

I did, though; I’m kind of proud of that. I got home and told her, “I met someone.”

The next day I called and asked you for a date. You said yes. We met for dinner at a restaurant on Ludlow Avenue; again, we talked for hours. I was measuring to see if you were lover material; thank you for letting me do that. That was the night I fell in love with you.

I don’t remember whether we went home together or not; I know it didn’t take long.

I remember that antique bedstead you had, with the curved footboard. I remember that awful mattress. I remember discovering, that first week, all the sports trophies you had in your closet. You were a champion in bowling, baseball, softball, volleyball, darts, golf, so many sports; at Western Hills High School you were “the fastest white boy in Cincinnati.” You got a track scholarship to Miami University, but it didn’t pay all the bills, so you enlisted in the Navy instead.

Thank you for serving your country.

They taught you to repair electronics, put you on an aircraft carrier and shipped you to Vietnam. It wasn’t as dangerous as the Army, but it wasn’t any piece of cake. You got through it and made it home in one piece. You enrolled at UC, worked your way through college and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

You were one of the brave ones in the city’s first Gay Pride March. It was a demonstration then, not a parade; it was a political confrontation with a narrow-minded city. You had a right to speak, a right you fought a foreign war to defend; and so, with your body, you spoke.

All of Cincinnati thanks you for that.

I was impressed with you, buddy; you’re my hero.

We made a great pair for awhile; you among the first marchers, me the first openly Gay person to use his full name in the newspaper.

I asked about your trophies; you told me modestly about your feats. You belonged to competitive teams in all the rec leagues, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to play on an openly Gay team for a change?”

It was December, but we started making plans for a Gay softball team (“Dust Off Your Jock and Join!”). We paved the way for the Greater Cincinnati Sports Association, the Cincinnati Alternative Volleyball Association, the River City Softball League, the FrontRunners, the bowling leagues; we did it, buddy. Every Gay and Lesbian athlete in town thanks you for that.

We sponsored a team—the only one with women and men, along with a Straight guy—and I got to watch you play, while you chuckled at me in right field. We finished second in the 8-team Gay league and you got elected to the All-Star Team. We went to Cleveland and played in an all-Gay, all-star tournament. I was so proud of you. Part of that was because of your athletic ability, but I saw something even more important: how well-liked you were among all the players.

It was true then and it’s true today: everyone who knew you loved you. You let people see your soul, and everyone knew you were good as gold.

Thank you for marrying me on our fifth anniversary.

I have to laugh for a second, remembering that crazy wedding in our apartment. People were invited for 7:00, and I wouldn’t let them in at 6:59, I wasn’t ready yet! But Fr. Wayland Melton came to officiate, my mother and Martha Weyand came, her daughter Peggy was our Best Woman and Bob Lauterwasser was our Best Man, so we did the apostate deed. We weren’t the first in town to have a same-sex wedding, far from it, but now it’s legal in California. Soon it will be legal in the Episcopal Church.

Thanks for saying yes, and showing up on December 6, 1990. I still have your ring, dude; I’m still wearing it. I promised you forever and I meant it.

An e-mail from Scott says the hospital has just summoned him; I guess you don’t have much time. But you have lived well, mister; thank you for that.

We made a great team for eight years. We put out a real Gay newspaper. Our stories made an impact; Mayor Luken didn’t get to replace AIDS expert Dr. Evelyn Hess with a money man on the Board of Health. While I was chasing stories, you were selling ads; we were united in purpose, to help liberate LGBTs in Ohio. Liberation hasn’t come yet, Jack, but you and I speeded it up. Thank you for that.

Thank you for all those hours together in the office, debating, discussing, trying to understand the issues, personalities and politics we faced. Thank you for your always cogent analyses. I constantly relied on your judgment. Whether it was the Reds and Bearcats or Jerry Falwell, Phil Burress or the Preble County Strangler, you were always ready for me with logic, wisdom and emotional support. So what if you couldn’t write your way out of a wet paper bag? You were in every story Gaybeat published.

Thank you for all the times you made me laugh. When people asked me how I could be in business with my lover and hang out together 24/7, I’d just point to you and say, “He’s got this dry wit that gets me through the day.”

When you got sick in 1987, not that much changed; yes, your body did, but your mind didn’t. Your soul didn’t change; if anything it deepened.

Where once you’d worked with desperate people with mental illness and homelessness, you came to work for another kind of people equally desperate—for freedom. You were always present for them; on their behalf I say thank you.

For speaking out for Gays in the military for a full hour on “The Fred Andrle Show,” thanks and a salute.

For taking care of your mother Kitty in her last years, thank you.

For your outspoken advocacy for people with disabilities, for serving your city and surveying all the barriers to mobility and dignity downtown, thank you.

For being a friend to Peg and Scott and so many others, thank you.

For being an instrument of peace in a violent and hate-filled world, thank you.

For documenting the human rights struggle in photographs, thank you. For publishing the truth about us for eight years, thank you. Man, all of Gay Cincinnati says thank you.

For gracing my life with your grace; for loving me when no one else seemed to; for welcoming me back every time after our separation; for simply letting me know you, Jack, for spending time with me, for touches: thank you.

The phone hasn’t rung yet; but I’m praying my eyes out that when your time comes, God welcomes you to heaven with these words: Thank you, Jack, you did great!

God plays softball, and he knows an all-star when he sees one.++

July 3, 2008