12/07/2012 02:23 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Michael Was Not a 'Faggot'

I'll call him 'Michael.'

He wrote to me every day because he read my magazine. He wrote to me twice a day. Sometimes he wrote to me three times a day. There was no reason to believe he'd be dead a month after I met him.

"My parents asked me to move out and my older brother called me a faggot," he wrote to me in an email one Thursday afternoon.

The day before he wrote, "Someone wrote 'faggot' on my locker at school."

I stood next to Michael's father as we gathered around a shiny black casket as it was lowered into the ground. The weather was deceiving: blue sky, big sun, not a cloud in sight. Cheerful almost. A few blocks away on Main St., the folks who lived in Michael's small Maryland town were enjoying an Autumn with promise. After all, the local paper had not reported Michael's death.

I knew no one at the service. I assumed the one and only lady weeping might have been Michael's mother.

I kept my head down, listening to her sniffling, but my mind was racing through weeks of his letters. Had there been any clues? Yes, but Michael didn't strike me as a kid hurt from discrimination -- he sounded heart broken.
Or did he?

"Burt is this boy at my high school," he wrote. "I think I might love him. No, I do love him. And I think he might love me."

I'd never been to a funeral. Hell, I'd never even seen a casket. When the service was over and folks starting scooping dirt from the side of the giant ditch in the ground and heaving it onto the shiny black box, I felt it. The goodbye. The goodbye to Michael. A boy was in there. A boy with a heart and a soul. A boy who had feelings. And now I was saying goodbye to him.

"My mother found all of my emails to you, Neal," I read, feeling a gut ache all too familiar. The woman who had adopted me, Lydia, had done the same to me. She'd read my journal in which I came out to myself and confronted me about it, "You 'LIKE' doing 'THAT?!' she had yelled, referring to anal sex.

"Well..," I remember looking down to my shoes and saying in shame, "Y-yes."

"I think you had better move out. My health is fragile and I do not want to be exposed to AIDS," I remember her saying. Rock Hudson died that week -- from AIDS. It was all over the news. I had written an OpEd to my local paper that had gotten published. She hadn't read it yet.

"And you know what?" she added, "I wish I had never adopted you."

For some reason, it wasn't that hard to hear that for me. I was about to head off to college -- on a scholarship for creative writing. Life seemed good. Her words were painful but by the next day I was over it. I was more sad about Rock Hudson than myself.

What was worse was reading Michael's letters about his pain.

"I called my Grandmother to see if I could go stay there, but she said she can't get involved," Michael had written to me. "I need a couch to crash on. I'm going to call Burt," he signed off with.

My driver had arrived early that morning. Sitting in the back seat as New York City blurred past my backseat window on my way to the airport, my mind skipped around: have your passport? Wonder what the kids will eat for breakfast. Hope they see my note, "Off to Milan, see you in four days gang."

On the plane my mind wasn't racing like it was in the car -- it was stuck on Bert. I'd fallen in love in high school with a boy named Bert as well. An odd coincidence that made me feel sick as we reached cruising altitude because my Bert was not gay -- and I feared that Michael's Bert wasn't gay either. The fear was so great that I felt like throwing up.

I squirmed in my wide first class seat. I pressed my head against the small window I sat beside. I looked up and exhaled at the blinking 'fasten your seatbelt' sign, wishing I could leap out and do something, anything, to prepare Michael for the heartbreak I feared he would not be able to take.

Five days later, after several unanswered emails and texts as I sat sifting through iPhone apps at The Chateau Marmont bar, "Are you there?" appeared on my screen from Michael.

"Micheel!" I wrote back, misspelling his name in my haste, "yes, I'm here. Are you ok?"

"My mother asked me to move out and my brother called me a faggot. So did Bert. Bert called me a faggot. And he's right. I am one."

"You're not a faggot," I wrote back immediately. "You're a good soul and you are special."

He didn't respond. I stared so deeply into the glow of my iPhone that night, as if the harder I stared the more likely Michael would write back. He didn't. But his mother did a week later.

"I have come to learn that you have been writing to my son and encouraging his homosexuality. You and people like you have corrupted him and are the reason he committed suicide several days ago. It's your fault."

I'd never sneaked into a funeral service, but I was glad I did that day, thanks to Michael's local precinct who helped me find out where and when to show up.

And while I had never met Michael, I felt as though I had when I saw his casket lowered into the ground.

It was disrespectful to do what I did next, but I did it anyway when I pulled open my black blazer to reveal my homemade t-shirt that read 'Michael was not a Faggot, he was a person -- his name was Michael.'