Although BENT's chief aim is to give gay men with disabilities a place to tell their stories, we want to hear from their nondisabled partners as well. Here is the
second spouse story we've published. Please send us yours.

 

I met Steve in the spring of 1991 through a local personals ad titled "All 'round American Guy looking for friends and a possible relationship." At twenty-eight I was still living with my parents and had never knowingly met another gay person. I had had crushes on other boys when I was younger, but I had never acted on them. Hiding the fact that I was gay became second nature, though I never dated girls to cover up the truth. It seemed unfair to mess with another person's feelings knowing I could not return them.

In fact, I had never made friends of any kind, fearing that people would dislike me if they knew the truth. Raised by a conservative Southern Baptist family, I had always thought I was evil for the way I was created. At a certain point I realized that my family's wisdom had failed me on the subject of being gay. I decided to take a chance and try to make some gay friends to see where it might lead me.

Steve had placed his ad in a small newspaper, not gay, but full of alternative music coverage and similar features, the kind of paper distributed free in convenience stores and record shops. I came across it by accident and was intrigued. A few weeks after I wrote a response we met for coffee. My fears melted as I listened to him tell me about his life; looking into his piercing blue eyes didn't hurt, either.

We became friends. As we grew closer, he went on to become my first date, the first man I kissed, my first sexual experience. Steve provided so many firsts in my life. Best of all he was the first person I could talk to about everything without hiding who I was.

In the fall of 1991 we went on a two-week camping trip across New Mexico. By trip's end we had decided I would move in with Steve. Looking back, it seems like this was when my life really began, making friends for the first time and, most important, building a life with someone.

Steve worked in the film and documentary business. His bread-and butter work was filming depositions for attorneys going to trial, but what he really wanted was to make educational films promoting equality for queer men and women. As he watched me struggle horribly when my family found out I was gay, his resolve formed into a plan. In 1994 he approached the local Houston chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Family & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) with the idea of making a documentary video to help families dealing with similar struggles.

PFLAG was thrilled with Steve's idea. After a lot of hard work filming and editing, "Always My Kid" was launched. The premier was probably the first and only time most of the PFLAG parents had ever set foot in a gay nightclub. That same night Steve proposed to me in front of the entire audience. "Always My Kid" went on to enjoy distribution all over the United States and in several other countries. By using my family's questions to me as an outline for his interviews, Steve was able to address most issues that arise when a gay child comes out to his or her family. Ministers, psychiatrists, parents of gay children, and gay people themselves were all interviewed.

On April 16th, 1994 we celebrated our civil union at a PFLAG parent's beautiful home overlooking a pond. Officiating were two straight ministers (also PFLAG members) who were intent on rebutting the assumption that gay relationships go against God and nature. "The Houston Post," a conservative paper, sent a reporter, their interest probably stimulated by TV's "Northern Exposure" and it's recent gay marriage episode. The "Post" article turned out to be positive, but local reaction was anything but. In the wake of the ensuing harassment we finally had to change our phone number.

In 1998, after more documentary work, Steve created and produced a weekly local gay television show called "TV Montrose" about Houston's diverse GLBT community, which aired for more than a year. Steve finally closed it down because meeting the deadline meant working too many hours a week.

At that point he made two major life changes. First, deciding he wanted to write, he landed a job with "The Houston Voice," our gay newspaper. Second, he moved to the family horse ranch in Plantersville, about an hour northwest of the city. From the ranch he planned to write a bi-weekly column called "Out From The Country," that would deal with gay issues from the perspective of someone living and working outside the customary urban gay environment.

Like many couples, gay and straight, we had grown so close over the years that we could finish each other's sentences. Since I was still living in Houston, Steve's move to the ranch meant a big change in our life together, but we decided that I would join Steve on weekends when I was not working.

At the end of his first week there I joined him at the ranch and we decided to take a drive around the surrounding countryside. On a steep curve Steve plunged off the road. I don't know how many times the truck rolled over. I woke up relatively uninjured, but Steve had been thrown several yards away. When I got to him I knew he was seriously hurt because I could see the white of his skull through a gash across his head. Some locals I managed to flag down called for help, and when the Grimes County ambulance crew got there they could see immediately how serious the situation was. The called for the Life Flight Helicopter, which flew Steve to Hermann Hospital in Houston, where he was diagnosed with traumatic head and spinal injuries.

Steve was hospitalized from August 1999 through early June of 2000, a period that included time at Texas Institute for Rehabilitation & Research (TIRR) for rehab and therapy. Fortunately, Steve had thought to have powers of attorney papers drawn up for us several years before, which included putting me in charge of his medical decisions. Without those papers I would not have even had hospital visiting rights.

When Steve was discharged from TIRR he did not know what day or year it was; he was confused about people, and his actions were impulsive and often aggressive. He would wake up screaming that someone with a gun was after him, or some other far-fetched thing. His doctors insisted that he had improved cognitively as much as he was going to, that patients rarely make more progress a year after injury. They suggested that I place him in a nursing home because he would be unable to live independently.

I refused their advice and instead took Steve home to a new house I had leased, one that was more accessible than the two-story townhouse where we'd lived before the accident. For safety reasons, his Mom stayed with him during the few hours I was able to work every day. I am a machinist for the oilfield industry, and work with my father. This allowed some major flexibility to my work schedule, flexibility that continues to this day. I should also explain that by the time the accident happened, my parents had already started to come around to be more understanding. When they realized how destroyed I was to see Steve hurt so badly, they finally understood that our relationship was based on love, the same as theirs.

For me, a period of emotional devastation began, not because of Steve's spinal injury, but because of how different he was as a result of his head injury. The man I loved had been replaced by a stranger, a new and often aggressive person who did not know me or remember our past together. This was the hardest time for me because I was so lonely and I missed my partner so much. It was almost like dealing with his death.

I read about a clinical trial for head injuries at the University of Texas Hyperbaric Center in Galveston and within a week after Steve was discharged from the hospital I had him enrolled in the program. We went for forty Hyperbaric Oxygen treatments. I am convinced that this innovative approach was responsible for Steve's dramatic recovery. He started improving and making more sense during the treatments and his improvement continues to this day. He now remembers all of our past history and is able to make his own medical and financial decisions. His docs at TIRR even wrote in his chart that he has had a "remarkable cognitive recovery."

Last year we purchased a fully accessible house. It even has a pool with a lift so that Steve can swim, ideal therapy for him. The house is close to my work, in case of an emergency. It also means I can come by at lunchtime to cover some caregiving duties.

I feel like our relationship is back on track: we can finish each other's sentences again.

© 2005 Russ Byrd
Header design by Tom Metz

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Russell Byrd (at right, with Steve) is a native Houstonian who enjoys spending time at home with Steve and their two pets, Seska, a Siberian Husky, and a cat named Kitty. According to Russ, "Steve proudly mentions to anyone we meet that he has had Kitty for fifteen years, a year longer than he has had me."

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2005