Once upon a time, I was a student at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. It was a very, very small school (under 500 students – my graduation class had 65 students), with degrees in church music, music education and performance – voice/organ/piano. At the time, WCC was a stand-alone conservatory (it’s now part of Rider University). We lived on the opposite part of Princeton, away from the famous University, in a residential neighborhood. It was a little enclosed society, in a real bubble.
During that time (1979-1983), being gay in the larger world was still very taboo. At Westminster, it was totally different. 95% or greater of the men there were gay, including almost the entire male faculty. As women in that environment, we usually dressed in baggy clothes, cut our hair short, rarely wore make-up (unless for a performance). We (the women) had one great indulgence – extremely expensive perfume. Get it? You can’t see it but the reminder to ourselves that we were actually female was there. All of the students spent very little time off-campus – we worked long hours, and rehearsed the rest of the time. Westminster was our entire life.
It was a school that specialized in choral music, which meant more of a team approach to music. We had to work in a choral setting at least one hour every day. With that few students, everyone knew everyone else. I was part of the Westminster Choir, the first-string 40 voice touring group. We rehearsed many more hours that the one a day, with two months during the school terms on tour, winter breaks spent making recordings, and the summers in the Spoleto USA Festival in Charleston SC and the Spoleto Festival in Spoleto, Italy. All this to say that our relationships were pretty intense, and we were all very close. Westminster Choir was famous for breathing absolutely in sync. We would be singing and all begin to sway together. It was such an organic experience – we lived and breathed each other. A little bubble – an idyllic place, rehearsing all the time, working with people like Zubin Mehta, Leonard Bernstein, Ricardo Muti, etc., etc. Amazing.
I had a strong interest in medieval history and had just gotten my own little Celtic (lap) harp. Suddenly there appeared on campus a young man, Mike Spratlin. He was the Scottish Harp Champion of the US, Clan Harper for Clan MacNeal worldwide, a well known Scottish harp player. He had a patron – Dr. Herbert MacNeal (the MacNeal clan chief, who actually lived in New Jersey). Dr. MacNeal was elderly, married with no children. He and his wife were paying for Mike to get his degree at Westminster.
Mike had a rough time of it. When he came out to his family, they spurned him. He lived on the streets of Salt Lake City for a time, surviving by being a male prostitute. He became part of the Mormon Church for awhile – you can imagine how that went. Eventually, he found the Scottish Harp Society, and his life changed completely.
Since we had the Celtic harp in common, we became friends. We were more than friends – we loved each other. I am a childhood incest survivor, who could barely stand to have a straight man give me a hug (my male friends at WCC had learned to be very cautious with me and never to take “not now” and a push away as a personal affront). Mike didn’t have many female friends, but really – he was the best “straight” gay man I have ever met. Even at Westminster it took awhile for folks to figure out that he wasn’t straight. I gave him the acceptance that his own family never did. He gave me a gentle re-entry into allowing myself to be touched.
We went everywhere together. We spent weekends at my mother’s house at the Jersey Shore, mostly in the winter, walking the beach and going out for breakfast. I introduced him to MTV. There was a time when he tried to convince me that I was gay, too – but I had no interest at all. It would have made things much easier for him, I think. I had asked him to play a particular tune at my wedding someday. It was the only piece of music he could never get right. He told me that he was afraid that if he could play it through without making a mistake, I would get married and he would lose me.
I attended Scottish music festivals with him. They all thought we were having a torrid affair – we would be holding each other, giggling madly and whispering in the corners (actually we both liked the same type of man). Then Mike would announce that we had to ‘tune the harps’ and we would run out of the room, laughing. They all thought that was code for something else – really, we had to go tune the harps! We always roomed together and often slept in the same bed together. We were often physical together, but not really sex – more ‘making out’ as they used to say. Dr. MacNeal once offered to make us his heirs (he had a very tidy fortune and no real family), if we would marry and have a child. Even my own mother encouraged me to do it, but instead I talked Mike into tell Dr. MacNeal the truth. Dr. MacNeal handled it well, and even offered to find me a nice Scottish bagpipe player of my own. So, I was part of his cover at in the very macho Scottish world. Even though he played the harp, the Scottish harp style is very aggressive, and he was truly a master at it – nobody ever guessed our secret.
Since he had started school later than the rest of his, Mike was 2 years behind me. I graduated, worked at the college for a year, then went to north Jersey to take a job in advertising. We kept in touch but nothing like it was – no cell phones or internet!
Now during the time I was at WCC, AIDS was just coming into the public mind. At the college, it was the most terrifying thing we ever had faced. We did not understand how it spread – we thought the innocent kinds of interactions I had with Mike would be enough to spread it. As the manager of the Westminster Choirs by that time, I had one singer go into the hospital in Rome during the Spoleto Festival (turns out it was just the flu) and literally began to research how to get a coffin from Italy to the US. It was a death sentence then. We thought we would all die from it, and especially all of our gay friends and teachers (many of them did, of course). I told you how close we all were, because of the kind of music we shared. We were together all the time, all year long. So, terror.
I was away from the College – Mike was still there. And one day I got that phone call, the one I dreaded.
Mike had AIDS.
Not only that, he wanted to come and see me.
I was in my early 20’s and despite my fears/issues, the one thing I wanted in the world was to have a child. I had to seriously consider that if I touched Mike (we didn’t understand!!), I might get sick, and I would never be able to have a child.
But I also knew that if I flinched even one little tiny bit when I saw him in person, I would kill him. And I truly loved him.
So I went out and found every book or article on AIDS that I could find (precious little back then). I called some agencies and asked questions. I went to my doctor to discuss the risks.
When Mike appeared at my apartment door, I opened it and flung my arms around and kissed him, like we always had before.
We ended up kneeling on my kitchen floor, while he sobbed and sobbed. And I did a bit, too.
You see, since he had been diagnosed NOT ONE PERSON had touched him. Not even his gay friends. But I loved him unconditionally. Enough to die for him, if he needed that touch. Enough to give up any chance of my having children for him. He deserved that much from me.
So when I heard about this movie project, I was there on my little apartment kitchen floor, holding him, stroking his back, telling him that I loved him, no matter what.
That I would never forget him, and I would never let him be forgotten.
I just wanted to share that AIDS was not only about the gay community. There were, and are, many of us who are heterosexual who lost people we loved. Family. Friends. And lovers, of a sort. The story of AIDS in the early 80’s was not just a gay story – it was –my- story.
Mike Spratlin at the harp (aka Aonghus MacNeal)