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AMEND CORNER: It didn’t matter — we were friends

Last fall, a childhood friend of mine died.

I don’t know for sure what caused Joe’s death, but from what I have found out, he was struggling with diabetes. His health apparently declined rapidly over a short time, and his death came following surgery. Cancer may have been a factor, too.

Since then, I have been thinking rather often about Joe, who, because of his Mexican heritage, chose to be called Jose as an adult. He would be happy to see what’s happening now.

Jose’s family moved to Worland after coal production around Rock Springs declined and his father lost his job. They came to the Big Horn Basin to do farm work, and from a very young age, Jose worked the beet fields along side his parents and siblings, using a short-handled hoe to thin and weed sugar beet fields.

I first encountered Jose in the fourth or fifth grade. Prior to that, he and his siblings had attended what was known as the “Spanish School,” but such separation was under attack then and Worland was beginning to integrate the Mexican kids.

Jose was the first Hispanic child I ever knew personally, but he wasn’t all that different from me. We had some interests in common, so I thought of him as just another kid in my class.

I think most of our classmates felt the same way toward Jose. Most of us recognized that Jose was quite intelligent and a good conversationalist, so he was interesting to talk to, and a conversation with him could be thought-provoking. Moreover, he had a tremendous work ethic, which he applied both to school and his after-school jobs. The result was that he earned the respect of the community as well as his classmates

Looking back, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had encountered some bigotry from other students, but if he did he never complained about it and I never saw it.   

A measure of the respect he had earned appeared at our class night during graduation. Nearly every scholarship awarded by a local organization went to Joe Gomez.

Both he and I went off to the University of Wyoming intending to become educators, but Jose had broader goal. His life to that point had taught him that equal opportunity was not available to everyone. He saw the factors that kept children like himself from getting a good education, and he saw that hard work wasn’t always rewarded by society. Overcoming these and other injustices became his focus.

After graduating from UW, Jose took his learning at UW, which included a Fullbright Scholarship that provided a year of education in Nicaragua, to South and Central America, where he taught and served in the Peace Corps. An article about agriculture workers in California led him to join Cesar Chavez and help organize those workers.

He then went to Harvard to earn a law degree, and used his degree on behalf of Hispanics in California, but he left that career to care for his parents during his father’s final illness. For the last two decades of his life, he returned to education, filling several roles at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

During those years, Jose and I lost contact. He never returned to Worland, while I spent a career less than 40 miles away. Our paths never crossed, and we were both busy with our careers and families.

Once the Internet became a reality, though, finding people became easy, and Jose and I began exchanging emails. In one of the first emails he told me he had helped form an organization at Harvard that would advocate for gays and lesbians. More important, he revealed that he was gay himself.

I wasn’t shocked or surprised by Jose’s revelation. I hadn’t considered his sexual orientation in high school or college. In high school, homosexuality was hardly on my radar, except as the subject of crude jokes or name-calling. Since those days, though, people have been less secretive about sexual orientation, and today gay issues surrounding marriage and discrimination are front-page news.

Today, of course, Jose’s homosexuality would make no difference to me, but I sometimes wonder how I would have received that revelation. It would no doubt be different, because the world was different back then.

Would I have rejected Jose or simply avoided him so that no one would think I was gay, too, especially since, on at least one occasion, he and I had been motel roommates on a school trip?  Or would I have felt no different about him and had the courage to say so?

I also wonder if Jose himself was aware of his homosexuality at the time. His email seemed to hint that he had been, but it really wasn’t clear. If he was aware, he was probably wise to keep it to himself. As a product of a strong Catholic family, Hispanic culture and a very conservative community, being an openly gay person would have been very difficult, if not dangerous. Keeping it hidden, though might be damaging, too.

Those questions of course, are irrelevant now. It still might be uncomfortable, even scary, to be openly gay for some Americans, but more and more gays and lesbians are being open about their orientation. Many of them are doing important work, and we simply can’t afford to lose their contributions through discrimination.

I’m happy Jose was my friend. He was someone who made a difference to a lot of people, and he was a pleasant human being who could teach you a lot.

It makes no difference that he was gay.

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