Local news media report, "College student found dead in his dorm room at age 21." Authorities are quoted: suicide has been ruled out; his death was accidental. A memorial service will be held. The college is evangelical Christian in nature; the school's spokesperson (a former colleague of mine) requests prayers for the family. He notes a scholarship will be set up in memory of the deceased.
A week later a friend of mine emails to ask if I've heard the latest developments. No, I missed the whole story. I tune in, learn the coroner has released the cause of death. Newspapers, radio and television stations noise it about.
And so I come to grieve the death of a young man I never met. Brad, I'll call him. Almost I could call him Rab; I see much of myself in him. Brad was a third-year student at my alma mater, a small Christian college with a large reputation among the conservative evangelical Christian crowd. Same school I was working for when I came out to myself and others as gay man. Same school that turned me out in short order; no room for a gay man on their administrative staff. They had the college's reputation to consider.
Brad came from a loving and supportive family environment, as did I. We both called Minnesota home. Like me, he majored in communications at college, demonstrated an artistic bent, participated in campus ministry groups. Like me, he harbored a sexual secret. It proved his undoing.
The coroner reported Brad died of auto-erotic asphyxia (AEA), a dangerous sexual practice that involves reducing the oxygen supply to the brain while masturbating to achieve a heightened orgasm. In this instance, something went awry and a 21-year-old college student ended up dead.
In 2009, the unexplained death of actor David Carrodine in a Thai hotel room focused media attention on AEA. Circumstantial evidence fueled speculation that the 72-year-old actor had died in the course of AEA activity. Often done in secret and shrouded in shame, the practice is particularly dangerous because no one is around to help if something goes wrong.
I wish our society set up fewer barriers to communication when it comes to sex. We label so much territory as off-limits, taboo. Whom is one to talk to, where to find support?
While in college I wrestled with what I believed to be a sinful attraction to other men. In this I felt very alone. I carried same-sex desire with me, in me, as a dark secret. My senior year I braved the college counseling center, divulged my struggle to the center director. He referred me to his wife, also a counselor.
"You have plenty of other issues to deal with," he told me. "I suggest you work through some of those with my wife. Then if this thing still bothers you, come back and see me." What I heard: your sexual desires are too sick, too far out to be addressed.
Did Brad ever seek a listening ear? What if he had turned to me? To you?
As a gay man living in rural Indiana, I am ever on the lookout for safe persons. I listen closely to words, note actions, expressions and attitudes. I look for people who are non-judgmental, accepting and kind. Who keep confidences, show respect, offer mutual support. I watch for people who are honest, trustworthy, confident, secure. In my own actions and advocacy, I signal to others my willingness to listen.
We need each other. There is a role for professional counselors, sure. Yet we can serve as lifelines to each other, offer support, acceptance and care. Will we?