A Different Angle: a random collection of essays and observations, mostly about lesbian/gay/bi issues.|
© Todd VerBeek, Radio Zero(tm)
Some knew him as "Jim Dressel", president of the Michigan Organization for Human Rights. Others remember him as "James Dressel (R-Ottawa County)", the state representative who introduced a lesbian and gay rights bill back in 1983 (and was defeated for re-election the following year). A few still thought of him as "Capt. James K. Dressel", a decorated Air Force pilot. But to me, he was "Uncle Jim", the guy who once threw me into his cousin's swimming pool, thinking (incorrectly) that I knew how to swim.
So I have a somewhat different perspective on Jim than most people in the lesbian and gay community. And a different perspective than the others in my family. His sudden death hits me particularly hard. There are a lot of thoughts running through my mind, so this article may not be terribly coherent or to-the-point. Please bear with me, because I think there's something to be learned in here somewhere.
Jim died of heart failure brought on by pneumonia. As anyone familiar with AIDS knows, this is a common way for people with that disease to die. The family sought to keep this information out of the papers, in order to spare Jim's mother from the homophobic judgments of her friends. But I can confirm that yes, he was gay, and even less widely known, he had AIDS.
But AIDS isn't what really killed him. What killed him was a lack of hope. Jim had known for some time that he was HIV+. Understandably, he kept this information to himself. He wanted neither the fear nor the pity. He was certain that a cure would not be found in his lifetime, and saw nothing to gain by trying to live with AIDS. So when it hit with full force, he didn't fight it.
He was in pretty good health until shortly before his death. Less than a month before, he'd gone on a cruise in the Caribbean. He came back with an infection, which got progressively worse, but he continued to work at the MOHR office until a week before he died. Meanwhile, he put his affairs in order, updated his will, and wrote a note to my mother. In it, he explained that he didn't want to live a life of dependence on others, that he didn't want to be kept alive without a certain quality of life. A friend found him lying in bed in a coma, and brought him to the hospital. His mother, sisters, and brothers-in-law immediately came to his bedside, saw to it that he was kept comfortable, but honored his wishes and let him die.
Jim's involvement in lesbian/gay political activism goes back a decade. For those who weren't following Michigan politics back in '83, here's a quick recap. Jim was a third-term state representative for Holland and Grand Haven, having been easily re-elected twice. Then he introduced HB 5000, a bill which would have added "sexual orientation" to the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. His "friends" and colleagues in the state legislature gave him no support. Even Rep. Paul Hillegonds, Jim's former roommate, refused to help him get re-elected. Jim was soundly defeated by his old opponent Al Hoekman, and retired from elective politics. He kept his hand in the political arena as a lobbyist for MOHR and a consultant for the state Dept. of Transportation.
Then in 1990, he became fully active again. MOHR had fallen on hard financial times, and was tens of thousands of dollars in debt. It looked to most people like a lost cause, heading for certain death. Some friends even advised me not to send them money, as it was just a black hole which would never be productive again. Jim stepped back into the organization as president (he had previously been a member of the Board), and turned it around. He poured much if his own money into the organization, recruited a new Board, and rebuilt the looted mailing list. Working for fifteen months as a volunteer and living off his savings and the sale of his sports car, Jim helped save Michigan's lesbian/gay rights organization. MOHR still has a way to go, but because of Jim, it's once again a viable organization. (Stay tuned for future developments.)
Jim knew that he was nearing the end of his life. He kept tabs on the state of his immune system, and could see that it was beginning to fail. So he spent the last year of his life doing his best to make a difference while he still could. That's an example worth emulating. Now, I'm not suggesting that everyone should quit their jobs, sell their cars, or give up on long-term survival, but I wonder what we could accomplish if everyone lived each year with the same spirit as they would their last? Because AIDS or not, each year could be the last for any one of us.
I learned a couple of critically important things thanks to Jim. The first was when he introduced HB 5000, and when he refused to answer the persistent questions about his own orientation. "It shouldn't matter," he insisted. That was the point of the bill. It was important for his constituents to hear. And for me, a teenager struggling with my own sexuality, hearing Uncle Jim say that it doesn't matter if a person is gay, it gave me the courage to begin to accept who I was.
The second thing I learned was when Jim stood firm as his colleagues in the legislature deserted him and the voters turned against him, and later, when he launched himself back into lesbian/gay politics by taking on the burden of saving MOHR. He showed me that, in another sense, it does matter. That last re-election campaign exposed me first-hand to vicious homophobia. Gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals are treated like dirt in our society, and we have to stick up for ourselves and fight back. Some things are worth being unpopular for... worth losing your job for... even worth giving the last year of your life for.
The only item of personal property Jim mentioned in his will was his diamond ring, which had been left to him by Carl Dressel, his grandfather. Jim had no partner and no children, and only one of his two sisters has a son, so now it passes to him... that is, to me. I don't carry the Dressel name, but I'm a Dressel nonetheless. And especially with Jim as the best-known example, I'm proud to be one. He left some big shoes to fill, but I'm going to do my best.