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As it’s currently LGBTQ History Month, it’s a particularly topical time to reflect upon lesser-known gay life stories. A recent post on the @theaidsmemorial Instagram account serves as a reminder not only of the gay men who lost their lives to HIV in the early days of the pandemic but also the fact that the cause of their deaths was often kept quiet by their families.
The Rev. Dr. Ginny Brown Daniel heralds from the southern US. She fondly remembers a man who had a big impact on her when younger.
“My friend, Mark, died of “the flu,” in 1993. I miss him every day. He gave me my first job when I was 15 years old in 1986. Mark owned Toomer’s Drug Store in Auburn, Alabama. This was his dream as a pharmacist and a huge Auburn football fan because the drug store was where we all rolled the oak trees with toilet paper whenever we won a game.
“I knew Mark was gay but we never talked about it because it was the mid-1980’s in Alabama, and Mark was Southern Baptist. I grieve that I could never talk to him about being gay but I saw how much he struggled with being a Christian and gay. I assumed that when he was ready, he would share.
“Each year, Mark took a vacation to New England,” she continues. “He would tell us about this area called Provincetown and share how much he loved it there. Even then, I knew in the marrow of my being that he went there so that for one week a year, he could truly be as God created him without judgment or shame.
“Mark was an active leader in our church and when I was asked to preach the sermon on Youth Sunday, Mark helped me prepare my delivery. I vividly remember practicing my sermon in the sanctuary as he walked down the aisle giving me pointers.
“I stopped working at Toomer’s in 1991 but often saw Mark until I heard at Christmas, 1992, that he was sick. I really wanted to visit him to tell him my exciting news that I was going to seminary to be a minister. But his parents told me he was in the hospital and was too sick for anyone to visit him. When I asked what he had, they quickly told me and everyone else in town that he had a bad case of the flu.
“Mark died on January 5, 1993. I have never said this out loud but I will say it here in this holy ground of @theaidsmemorial: my friend, Mark Morgan, died from complications of AIDS.
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“After Mark’s death, I graduated from college and seminary. I became a pastor in the United Church of Christ and now serve as a Conference Minister (like a bishop) for Missouri, Arkansas, and Memphis, TN.
“Mark not only shaped my adolescence, he shaped my ministry because I vowed to welcome all in the Church and celebrate that all — especially those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender are created in God’s image because my friend, Mark, was created in God’s image!
“I have officiated same-sex weddings, held the hand of those dying from AIDS, advocated for lesbian partners when one was in the ER and her partner was not allowed to see her, and testified on behalf of a gay couple as they sought to adopt their daughter in Texas.
“I have also been fortunate to see the Church on its good day, when LGBTQ individuals and families were welcomed into our church as members, Sunday School teachers, Church Council leaders, and eventual ministers. And each time, I smile and remember my friend, Mark.”
Although times have changed and there is thankfully now effective treatment for those living with HIV, stigma and prejudice remain, both toward those with the virus and gay communities. Just last week, the state of Texas moved to allow social workers to turn away potential clients who are LGBTQ.
The Reverend’s words prompted many comments online. Several others remembered Mark.
“I knew Mark when I attended pharmacy school at Auburn and he owned Toomer’s drugs. He loved what he did and loved Auburn. I hope I’ve become half the pharmacist he was. Thanks so much for sharing his story,” said one.
“I cried all the way through the post,” said Butch McKay on Facebook. “The tears started when I looked at the photo and thought I know that face. As an Auburn graduate, I spent many hours at Toomer’s Drugs both as a student and as an alumni who travels to all the home games. I never really knew Mark personally but he was always friendly. He would welcome you with a smile and a War Eagle! Auburn fans will understand that greeting. I was very involved in the Baptist Student Union and even served as a student pastor at a Baptist church in Opelika so I fully understand that difficult balance in being gay and being Christian.”
Another on Instagram said, “It is society’s shame that any human being would only get one week out of the entire year to be who they really are.”
Others were also touched by this aspect of Mark’s story.
“I’m still lingering over these words: ‘Even then, I knew in the marrow of my being that he went there so that for one week a year, he could truly be as God created him without judgment or shame.’ Thank you for sharing Mark with us,” said Donal Welch on Facebook.