Making Stephen’s Panel
In Memory of Stephen Allen Love, 3/19/53–4/9/99
Stephen was my husband’s ex-lover, his first real relationship in the glory days of the 1970s
when being queer was no longer an illness, and the celebration lasted a few years.
They met and lived together in college, but, after several years, parted ways, though always
remaining close friends. When I met my husband I had never had a relationship with a man,
only short-term affairs, and many forgettable one-night stands. I was so jealous and threatened
of their bond, believing a break-up was final like the divorces I knew in my family—permanent,
bitter, dead—and I wasn’t sure how to love someone with the ghost of his past hovering over so
closely. But Stephen accepted me, gently teaching me how to be gay; what gay love was really
about: a band of brothers bound together by bigotry, breaking boundaries with equal parts of
respect, and a determination to become equal; loving each other always, a steadfast rule.
I got used to his phone calls, trips to see him, his trips to visit us, and I grew to love him.
He became part of our family—my gay big brother—even traveling with us in 1993
for the March On Washington, where my husband and I joined thousands in a protest wedding
that turned out to be more important to us than we expected. Stephen, wrapped in an American
flag and wearing a white cowboy hat, marched proudly, and wished us many years of happiness
together, like any family member would. When we returned home we held a reception to
celebrate, though members of our real families wouldn’t attend. And we faced death threats
from local bigots after we allowed a news channel and newspapers to document our nuptials.
When Stephen started getting sick, he had friends and help around, and we visited each other
as often as we could. He told me once, while visiting us in Las Vegas—he loved the glitz, camp,
and a good drag show—that I would need outside support when I got sick; that while my
husband was a compassionate, gentle soul, he could never handle the dying. Stephen wasn’t
being mean, just honest, like a big brother, making sure I was prepared. When he died, I knew
what he meant. We decided to remember him with a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, that
needles and thread tombstone growing each day. We used his favorite jeans, lots of beads
and sequins, and the photograph of him standing proudly, wrapped in the American flag,
as well as other photos proving he had been on this earth. Then we made the difficult,
but necessary trip to deliver the panel, releasing it—and Stephen—to the world the last year
the entire Quilt was displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. We’ve since seen
that special panel at AIDS Walks, in calendars, and other places in complete surprise, as if
Stephen’s following us; still our brother cheering us on, helping us to march proudly forward.
That’s how he lived. How he loved. We miss him, and wish he were still here. I wish Stephen
could help me navigate the illness that will take me, too, someday. And I wish he could be here
to help my husband make my panel.
Chuck Willman has published poetry in Assaracus, Nurturing Paws, and Christopher Street, and a number of erotic short stories as Ethan Cox, a pseudonym. He lives a quiet life with his partner of twenty-three years and their dog in Las Vegas.