About a year after Patsy Clarke's son Mark died from AIDS in 1994, she sat down and wrote a family friend. A powerful U.S. Senator, the friend had been close to her late husband, and vice versa. But this senator had also recently been quoted in national media saying that because AIDS can be spread through risky behavior, AIDS sufferers deserved to die. Clarke pleaded with the senator to change his views, if not to accept gay people, then at least to stop his homophobic ranting about what he calls "the homosexual lobby" and to stop passing judgment on other people.
Two weeks later, she got a letter back -- but it didn't hold the answer she had hoped for.
"As for Mark, I wish he had not played Russian roulette in his sexual activity," the letter read. "He obviously had a very great deal to offer to the uplifting of his generation. He did not live to do the wonderful things that he might otherwise have done. I have sympathy for him and for you, but there is no escaping the reality of what happened. Sincerely, Jesse H."
Friendships put aside, a grandmother from North Carolina was not about to change the ideas of Senator Jesse Helms -- Clarke was devastated.
"I think I cried for two weeks. I just couldn't believe it. I wasn't asking for much, just for him to stop his homophobic speech, but no, that was not to be," she says. "But Helms probably didn't realize how what he said would impact me and what I would do."
Clarke got mad and together with a new friend, Eloise Vaughn, who had also lost a son (who was also named Mark) to AIDS, she launched Mothers Against Jesse In Congress (MAJIC) in 1995. The partnership also led to a book, Keep Singing, Two Mothers, Two Sons and Their Fight Against Jesse Helms, which the two will read from at Auntie's Bookstore on Monday night.
Together the two lobbied and campaigned their way from Raleigh, N.C., to the 1996 Democratic Party's national convention in Chicago. For Clarke, who describes herself as "a recovering Republican," going to that convention was like crossing into enemy country, but it was well worth it.
MAJIC continued to grow as other mothers joined the fight against Helms, and Vaughn and Clarke spoke at countless gatherings, including when the AIDS Quilt was displayed in Washington, D.C., in 1996.
Regardless of the efforts of MAJIC, Helms was reelected. But that didn't deter the two women.
"We had to dissolve MAJIC, because it was a political action committee, after the election. Right now, we don't really have an organization but we do have a book," says Vaughn.
In the book, Vaughn and Clarke first take turns talking about their sons' lives, then they boldly go on to explain what it feels like to get what they call "the double whammy."
"That's what it is like when your son first says, 'Mom, I'm gay' then, 'Mom, I have AIDS,'" says Vaughn.
Clarke writes honestly about her feelings when her son told her. "A new fear came into my life that day. The first part was understandable, because it was the fear of losing my son. But the second part was less understandable and felt unnatural: I was afraid what people would think."
Both Vaughn and Clarke come from influential families in a small community -- and from the book, it's painfully obvious how much stamina it has taken over the years for them to answer people's questions about the deaths of their sons.
"It's really not about Jesse Helms any longer. Now it's about gaining acceptance for gay people," says Clarke. "Helms became a catalyst for what we do. In a sense, he first brought us together and then he spurred us on to become politically active."
The two women are on a national book tour, which has taken them from New Jersey and New York, to California and now on to Seattle and Spokane.
"It's hard. We are not young any more. One of us is 68 and the other 72," they laugh in unison, over the speakerphone from California. "After Spokane, we are going to head home to North Carolina for some rest."
But before that, they are going to do what they do best: reach out to other mothers who have lost children to AIDS.
"Just the other day, this young woman came to us after the reading. She was in tears, and she said, 'I wish my mother would read this book, but I know she won't,'" says Clarke. "Our society, our culture and our collective mores are what's creating this stigma and doing this to people. So many people are still dying from AIDS." She adds that across the country, educational efforts are hampered, because in some states, the law prohibits public school teachers from passing on information about AIDS.
"And you know what life is like when you are young today. It's absolutely paramount that young people get this information," says Clarke.
What's their best advice to parents with children who have AIDS?
"Don't be afraid to tell the truth. In my own experience the truth set me free. AIDS is not a disgrace -- it's a tragedy," says Clarke. "I feel no shame, I feel tragic about losing my son. We try to help other mothers get through this and sort out these feelings -- always remember, there is never anything wrong with loving your kids."
Patsy Clarke and Eloise Vaughn read from their book on Monday, June 18, at 7:30 pm at Auntie's. Call: 838-0206.