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Unlikely Activists 

The death of their sons from AIDS brought together two mothers to try to unseat Jesse Helms five years ago

Patsy Clarke remembers very clearly the first words Eloise Vaughn ever spoke to her. "My name is Eloise Vaughn," said a voice over the phone. "I understand you've lost a son to AIDS. So have I."

It was 1995, and Clarke, "wading through a morass of misery," felt after this dramatic introduction that the woman on the other end of the phone was someone who would understand what she was thinking and feeling. The two agreed to meet for lunch in Raleigh at Simpson's steak house. During lunch they talked and discovered that they had much in common. Both of their sons were named Mark. Both sons had worked in the entertainment industry. Both women had lived privileged lives. Both of their late husbands had been politically involved, but for different parties. Both women had been widowed before their sons had died, so each had been forced to deal with it alone. And neither of them had known that their sons were gay--though they had suspected.

As they were finishing their lunches, both women, afraid earlier of being thought lushes, finally ordered wine, increasing their conviviality. Though neither could have suspected it, their sons, in death, were bringing them together to start a special friendship.

"Can you imagine if they had met?" Clarke said to Vaughn. "We could have been mothers-in-law."

The two women had reason to seek each other out for support. When Vaughn's son had died four years earlier, she had called her local funeral home to make arrangements for his burial, letting slip that "the AIDS finally took him." As Vaughn recalls, the voice on the other end of the phone sounded startled.

"AIDS?"

"Well, yes. AIDS," she said.

"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Vaughn," came the reply. "There must have been some kind of misunderstanding. This funeral home does not handle deaths by AIDS."

At the same time, Clarke had recently been upset to hear what a longtime family friend, Jesse Helms, was saying on the Senate floor about people like her son Mark. Vowing to fight "the homosexual lobby" and oppose a bill funding medical treatment for AIDS victims, Helms was quoted as saying, "Sure, I said it was a filthy, disgusting practice. I said it. I meant it. I repeat it today."

At her new friend Eloise's urging, Clarke wrote Helms--the same man who had called her in the night to express his sorrow over her husband's death, the same man who had sent her the flag flown on the Capitol in her husband's memory. In her letter, Clarke told Helms about her son's death and asked the senator to support AIDS research. "It is not to accept a lifestyle that is abhorrent to you," she wrote, "it is rather to ask you not to pass judgment on other human beings as 'Deserving what they get.' No one deserves that. AIDS is not a disgrace, it's a tragedy. Nor is homosexuality a disgrace; we so-called normal people make it a tragedy because of our own lack of understanding."

Helms' now famous reply came in two weeks. After acknowledging how devastating her son's death must have been to Clarke, Helms wrote, "As for homosexuality, the Bible judges it, I do not." He then laid out his position that there must be "some reasonableness" in the allocation of federal funds for research and treatment of diseases, and that there was little justification for AIDS funding exceeding that for diseases such as cancer and heart trouble. And then there was this: "As for Mark, I wish he had not played Russian Roulette in his sexual activity. ... I have sympathy for him--and for you. But there is no escaping the reality of what happened."

A new book, Keep Singing (Alyson Books, 178 pp., $13.95), chronicles what happened after Clarke received that letter. Written in alternating chapters by both Clarke and Vaughn, with the help of Nicole Brodeur (the People reporter who first covered their story), it describes how two women, one conservative and one liberal, came together to form MAJIC, or "Mothers Against Jesse in Congress." Many in the Triangle will already be familiar with MAJIC's campaign to unseat Helms in the 1996 senatorial race. Keep Singing, at heart an inspirational prayer for compassion, also contains anecdotes revealing how we often fail compassion's call.

After MAJIC got off the ground with an inspirational 1996 Mother's Day rally, Clarke and Vaughn were invited to the Democratic National Convention. At breakfast with the North Carolina delegation, they were approached by an official. "Mrs. Vaughn," he said, "our state chairman asked me to come over and tell you to enjoy your breakfast and please have some more. But would you please refrain from speaking to members of the press."

"We're leaving," Vaughn said, feeling as though she had suffered a blow across the face. "I was never so hurt in my life," she would say later. "Here at the gathering of my beloved North Carolina Democrats, where I had always felt at home, I was running into the same rejection that Jesse Helms was administering, and for the same reasons: fear and an unwillingness to acknowledge even the existence of a gay-friendly constituency."

Clarke's story is perhaps the more remarkable one in Keep Singing. In her chapter, "How I Learned to Love Liberals," she describes a sort of revolutionary shift in thinking not often associated with 67-year-old grandmothers. Sparked by the gnawing shame of her first thoughts at the news of her son having AIDS--Oh my God! My son will die! ... What will people think!--Clarke travels down a long road of self-discovery. She acknowledges that she had lived most of her life in an environment where accepting homosexuality was out of the question, where it was something that could be "corrected." "We were 'consistent conservatives,'" she writes. "We didn't believe in welfare because we thought people should take care of themselves. That's such a simple philosophy, no gray areas, an 'easy solution.' Ayn Rand was a guiding light."

Clarke learned later what kind of effect this had on her son. At the funeral of his father, Mark had revealed his torment to his sister Candy, telling her that, now that their father was dead, he must know all about his gay son, and must hate him. It was only after Mark had revealed his homosexuality to Clarke that she realized the agony he had felt in hiding, "how he had spent his life at the dinner table, hungering for acceptance from his own family." Later, when Clarke had become "a recovering Republican," she felt freer. "I didn't have to take these great, hard-line, rigid positions about things," she writes. "I didn't have to say, 'Well absolutely not!' ... I could simply say, 'Hmm. Well, maybe so. I'll think about that.'"

Keep Singing is a simply written and powerful story about two unlikely activists--neither could have expected that their personal tragedies would become a cause célbre that swept them onto the national stage. Though filled with pathos, the book also contains moments of unexpected, ironical humor.

Before the Democratic National Convention, Clarke found herself worrying in front of the mirror at Belk's: "Do Democrats dress differently than Republicans?" At other times the book blunts the sharpest cynic's edge with the essential goodness of people. After Clarke and Vaughn spoke in Washington, D.C., Clarke writes, she walked over to the fence separating her from the crowd. "It was mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of gay men and lesbians and friends, reaching--so help me God--through the fence. ... Not only reaching, but thrusting money at us. So much we couldn't hold it. We hugged the people through the fence and saw the tears streaming down their faces, especially parents, who said: 'Thank you.'"

The tone of the book's forward, supplied by Allan Gurganus, belies such humble testimony, unfortunately. Featuring sometimes indigestible, sometimes hyperbolic prose, it obfuscates the simple truths these two mothers offer us. This is chiefly the result of Gurganus' attempt to parallel the struggle of Clarke and Vaughn with that of occupied Europe under the Nazis. The temptation to paint Helms as a Nazi is understandable, but it's unfortunate that Gurganus succumbs to it, and in succumbing to it, weakens the book's message. The story of MAJIC needs no romanticized inflation. Nevertheless, Gurganus is eloquent when he reaches for the heart of the challenge Clarke and Vaughn faced. "The luckiest people in the world are those who see the trouble, who instantly know the trouble and who come to love its features, who soon learn trouble's every talent, its own complete potential," he writes. "Such people live forever open to the world, not hidden forever within gated communities behind the great moats and steeples and civic edifices protecting all that's safely 'us.'" EndBlock

  • The AIDS-related deaths of their young sons brought together Eloise Vaughn and Patsy Clarke to defeat Jesse Helms.

More by Matthijs E. Schoots

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