Smile Politely

Eulogy for a friend

Kurt PickettThis past Friday I learned that Kurt Pickett, an old friend of mine, had died from leukemia. He was 38 years old. I had not talked with Kurt for at least fifteen years. I didn’t even know that he was sick. But when I learned of his passing, the memories of our brief friendship returned to me, and the grief that I felt was hard and intense.

I think that all of us can easily name someone from our past who had a role in forming our worldview. Someone whom we met early, while we were still becoming full human beings. Kurt Pickett was that person for me. He was only 21 years old, but he was a prodigy, and an old soul.

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed”~~Carl Gustav Jung

Kurt and I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. We met during my junior year in college when I got a job as a peer tutor in the English Department’s Writing Center. I was getting my BA in English and Kurt was studying for his BS in Biology. He was also minoring in English, and was a good enough writer that he’d been hired to work in the Writing Center.

We were introduced by my mentor, Dr. Merrell Knighten. Before introducing us he privately told me, “Kurt’s probably unlike anyone you’ve ever met. He’s going to do great things.” Dr. Knighten was correct on both accounts. By the end of our first day working together, I knew I’d met a kindred spirit, but I didn’t yet have any idea why I felt that way.

“It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy”~~Lucille Ball

Kurt was already a familiar face when I met him. I’d seen him around the Liberal Arts building (I thought he was an English major). That first day, I didn’t have a chance to be shy because he was so friendly. He asked me quite a lot of questions about myself, and about half an hour into the conversation I learned he was gay. He was the first out gay person I’d ever met, which translated to me as: He was the first gay person I’d ever met. And I instantly felt inexplicably relaxed and open with him. And again, I didn’t yet know why I felt that way. This new knowledge simply made him much more … normal to me, and easier to get to know.

During those first weeks of our friendship, I asked Kurt a lot of questions about homosexuality. I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t even know the “bad” things about it that your average Catholic girl from a strict, parochial Italian culture usually knows (this was the early ’90s, before the Internet). The elders in my family called gay people perverts, sure, but other than that, I was clueless. Kurt patiently, and in great detail, spelled it all out for me. No question was too personal, too offensive, or too naive.

Those conversations with Kurt remain some of the most valuable of my life. They were like food and drink to me. Talking with Kurt acquainted me with my self. And after he introduced me to his lesbian friends and took me to my first gay bar, I knew what I was. It all — everything about my entire life — finally clicked into place and made complete sense.

But I didn’t talk about this with Kurt. I tried to, but I couldn’t articulate it clearly. Instead of saying, “I’ve come to understand that I’m bisexual,” I chose instead to timidly ask him his thoughts about bisexuality. He talked about it with me, but I left that conversation with more questions than actual answers. I thought perhaps it was mere curiosity, and dropped it. But I didn’t forget it. Years later, after I’d accepted — and began to celebrate — my sexuality, I’d often wish that I’d been brave enough to talk with Kurt about it. We Catholics don’t cast off our upbringings easily.

I didn’t pursue that topic with Kurt again. I didn’t have a chance to. Back then, we were busy with more important things.

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail”~~Ralph Waldo Emerson

My conversations with Kurt about homosexuality weren’t just about sex. I also learned how deep and entrenched discrimination against gay people was, especially where we lived. And early on, before I even began identifying as gay or bisexual, I joined him in fighting it. Kurt had already begun doing “great things” in our city.

Shreveport had recently opened an HIV/AIDS support center. Kurt was instrumental in its formation and spent time volunteering there.

A group of us formally addressed our so-called Human Relations Commission, explaining why gay and lesbian people should be included under its protection (we lost this one).

We wrote letters to the local newspaper claiming that hate crimes against gay people in the city were being ignored and going uninvestigated by our police.

Kurt was a part of a large group of activists involved in ACT-UP that protested in the streets of Shreveport — even closing down the Huey P. Long bridge — to bring attention to AIDS Awareness.

We watched while our city’s school board and government were taken over by a new, powerful PAC called “The Christian Coalition.”

And we cheered and almost cried when Bill Clinton referred to America’s “straight or gay” citizens in his nomination speech at the 1996 National Convention. It’s the little things.

“It went beyond idealism and that ridiculous term activism, which basically means talking about something but doing nothing”~~Bob Geldof

Kurt was a fearless political being. He was intense, tenacious, and driven. His interests and involvement went far beyond gay rights issues. He was a socialist, a feminist, an environmentalist, and fiercely pro-choice. My introduction to Marxism came not from college, but from a book that he lent to me.

When the administration planned to cut library hours, Kurt helped organize a sit-in at the library. We stayed until the wee hours of the morning studying and watching movies (we won this battle).

I remember the two of us debating overpopulation, veganism (he was; me? no way), racism, and states’ rights (hey, it was the South) with other students in the Writing Center. Every time I’d get frustrated and begin ranting, Kurt’s response would be, “Write about it.” And sometimes I did.

Kurt taught me the difference between being a social critic and being an activist. He taught me that to make change we have to do more than write letters and put signs in our yards (though we did that too). We have to make our voices heard, put our bodies in the streets (and sometimes in harm’s way). We have to be willing to embarrass (and anger) our families. We have to risk facing our opponents, in person, look them in the eye. We have to be willing to be unpopular.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”~~Oscar Wilde

By the time Kurt left Louisiana for graduate school in Ohio, I not only knew what I was, but who I was, and who I would continue to try to be. I was a better person for having known him.

One of the last conversations I had with Kurt took place before he moved. We talked about his studies and the activism scene in Ohio and the situation regarding gay rights there. I asked him if he planned to be out, whether he was concerned that being so might affect his chances at getting a job or scholarships. He said, “I wouldn’t work for anyone who had a problem with me being gay.” I said, “Oh my God. Of course you wouldn’t,” and he laughed. I’ve carried that statement with me all of these years. I’ve never since been closeted — not at my job, not at my universities, not with my friends or family. I’ve remembered and applied Kurt’s words with every new job or friend I’ve made. They’re my mantra, and my litmus test.

I knew Kurt for only two years. I don’t think I was as important to him as he was to me. I don’t think I could have been. I doubt that he knew the enormous influence he had on me (and shame on me for never telling him). When he moved away we lost touch. This was before e-mail was really prevalent, and by the time it had become so, we both had new lives. Every few years I’d Google Kurt. I knew that he’d become a prominent scientist and taxonomist, that he’d left bees behind to study social behavior in wasps instead. None of this surprised me. He was doing great things.

“The dwarf sees farther than the giant, when he has the giant’s shoulder to mount on”~~Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Friend

Kurt was the first person I ever talked to about being bi (however cryptically), and he was always there when I needed him. He (and the examples he set) never failed me. If the small part that I do for gay rights in my corner of the world helps or makes any difference at all, it is because I was fortunate enough to meet Kurt Pickett all of those years ago. I am a dwarf standing on his shoulders, and I know that am not alone.

Rest in peace, Kurt Milton Pickett. The world is a better place for your brief time in it.


Photo used by permission.
Front page image: Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun, by Nicolas Poussin

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