By Jeff Walsh
On January 21, in Sacramento, Calif., Tom Beddingfield stood on the steps of the state capitol and, for the 27th time, spoke about why he became an activist, or rather the events that led him to activism. And for the 27th time in public, he had to relive the love and loss of his boyfriend, Brandon, who shot himself on March 9, 1996.
Beddingfield was speaking as part of Youth Lobby Day, which drew 300 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youth from all over California. There was a rally, then individuals met with their local representatives and attended workshops.
Beddingfield remained composed for his speech, but immediately afterward broke down crying.
"It just keeps getting worse and worse. It still does bring me down," Beddingfield said in a phone interview with Oasis a week after his speech.
Having never met Beddingfield prior to the phone call, the emotion with which he talks about his love for Brandon caught me off guard. It's as though he exposes his own raw nerves and touches them for you despite knowing it will hurt him.
"I thank God I had him. He made me everything I am today. He was the greatest influence on my life. Because of him, I became a gay rights activist. Because of him, I became a Republican. Because of him, I became a Titanic historian. He motivated me and kept pressuring me into doing this. He was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," he said.
A month away from the two-year anniversary of Brandon's death, Beddingfield knows he still has a long way to go in dealing with all of the surrounding issues.
"It takes a lot of time. I'm nowhere near getting a sense of closure about his death. I go to the cemetery all the time and spend a couple hours at a time there. I still have a lot of his mementos. I gave him a pen for Christmas in 1995 that cost me $150. After he died, I kind of took it. And I've never once not had that pen on me any day of my life since he died. It's hard not to carry that pen. I need it there, and I don't really use it. I have to have it right there as a reminder," he said.
Beddingfield was 17 when Brandon died. They had been seeing each other for 20 months at that time. Beddingfield recalled being alone and isolated for most of his life prior to meeting Brandon.
"I just grew up in isolation and kept to myself and didn't talk to people because I knew I was gay. I really thought that something was wrong with me. So, I just stayed away from people and didn't want to talk to anybody," he said. "In sixth grade, I met Brandon and, it was weird because I had just moved to San Jose after my parents divorced. I was starting at Catholic school and didn't want to talk to anybody, but he kept coming up to me and trying to talk.
"I kept hinting for him to go away or said 'Get lost' or something. I was always reading my book, but he didn't get the hint and he wouldn't leave. It was really annoying me. So, after a couple weeks of this going on, I finally just started talking to him and we actually had a lot in common. We became friends."
Beddingfield said Brandon was the first to admit he was gay, during Richard Nixon's funeral, oddly enough.
"He was so emotional and so different. I was, like, he can't be that upset over Nixon's death. I asked him what was wrong, and he said 'well, he was a president.' And I said, 'Oh, come on, I'm not going to buy that bullshit.' So, he said, 'well, I'm gay.' And I turned my head really quickly and said 'What?' I was so relieved because I knew I was gay, but I thought it meant something was wrong with me. And to hear my own best friend was too was amazing," he said. "The first thing I did was move a couple feet away from him and say 'You're gay?' And it actually took me two months to get the courage to tell him I was gay. And when I came out, he was like, 'Oh, I know.' I said, 'What do you mean, you know? How the hell would you know?' I always hate it when people do that."
A month later, Brandon accompanied Beddingfield and his family on a trip to Yosemite National Park. During the trip, several members of Beddingfield's immediately family were seriously injured. Brandon kept him calm throughout the ordeal and the experience changed their relationship.
"When we returned to San Jose, I just felt closer to him more than ever. I just knew he was going to be there for me," he said. "And then, he asked me to go out on a date. And I was shocked. I said, 'We're guys. We can't date.' He said, 'Sure we can, try it.' I kept telling him it wasn't a good idea, but he was a stubborn little prick, so we did it.
"My life abruptly changed from living a life of isolation to being more open and having a smile on my face and everything seemed all right. Brandon and I weren't like other teenagers, we didn't go to concerts or sporting events or movies," he said. "We went to political seminars and fund-raisers; we went para-sailing, hot air ballooning. We just did all these weird things. We met president Clinton, vice president Gore, speaker Gingrich, George Bush."
During the entire time they were dating, they never reached out to the gay community. All they had was one another. They didn't study anything about homosexuality, but just enjoyed the love they had for one another. After a year of seeing each other, they decided to come out in November of 1995.
"We weren't ready for that at all. Brandon and I were very smart and very intellectual, but we just thought everyone was going to be okay with it. What a surprise we got. I came out to my mother, and when we came out, I didn't tell my parents he was gay, and he didn't tell his parents I was gay for fear they would separate us," he said. "I told my mother, and told her two days before I went on a brief vacation. When I came back, everything in my room was gone, so I took the hint.
"I was 16 at the time, and I moved out of the house and went to go stay with my father. I was with him for three weeks, and he found out I was gay courtesy of America Online, and he tried to have me institutionalized. That was quite an ordeal. When they refused to admit me, he sent me to a group home in Fresno," he said. "I was there for 10 days. I spent Christmas there. My 17th birthday was spent there. My really good friend, who was my mother's high school friend, found out and told me to come stay with her. So, I ran away from the group home."
When he returned, he found out how Brandon's coming out had gone.
"He actually waited a couple of weeks after I came out before he told his family. He did not get thrown out, but they completely turned their back on him," he said. "They hardly would talk to him. If they did, it would be some derogatory slur or tell him it was wrong or against the Bible. 'Don't even consider yourself our son.' Brandon's father hit him often and he was afraid to go home." he said. "Brandon had another friend whom he told, and he wasn't as good a friend as we thought. He went back to school the next day and told everybody. So, Brandon was outed at school. I had been made fun of at school before. I thought teasing and threats would be the worst thing you could get, but I was wrong.
"They threw rocks at him. They spray-painted his locker with the word faggot. They beat him up. Flushed his head down the toilet. They really brutalized him and he was only 16 years old. He didn't deserve that. And he began to change. He didn't want to do anything anymore. He didn't want to go out. He was always unhappy. He cried a lot. He had no place to go. We didn't know anything about the Billy DeFrank Center or LYRIC or anything like that. We just thought we were completely alone.
"Then he started talking about the end and it really started scaring me. He made me promise not to tell anybody, so I didn't. And on March 9, 1996, he shot himself.
Oddly enough, it was the Titanic that helped Beddingfield realize that life was worth living. Not the movie, which hadn't even begun filming yet, but the actual boat at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Newfoundland.
"Before all this had happened, I was invited on board Titanic Expedition 96, when they tried to raise a part of the hull. In late August of '96, I decided I was going to go even though I was really depressed," he said. "On that expedition, they had four Titanic survivors out there. And I had met them before, but just meeting them this time and talking with them gave me a new sense of how precious life is. When you hear their story about what they went through that night and how they survived and how they got this far, and how they never thought anything would be the same. It just made me think everything was going to be okay."
After the expedition, during which James Cameron filmed footage of the real Titanic for use in the current hit movie, Beddingfield returned to high school to graduate and became a gay rights activist in Brandon's memory.
Beddingfield is currently staying with his mother in San Jose, where three days a week, he talks about the history of the Titanic prior to its showing in the local theater. The time that has passed and the ordeal has he gone through hasn't healed the rift his sexuality created in his family.
"We're very distant. My brother calls me faggot all the time and my sister calls me gay boy. My brother does it with spite. My sister does it to joke around. It really hurts when they do that," he said.
Brandon's parents, however, are another story.
"His parents are doing better than my parents ever will," he said. "They go to PFLAG in Washington. They've come around, accepted homosexuality and they realize their role in their son's death and they're very sorry."
Beddingfield still communicates regularly with them, and talks to Brandon's sister a lot. Their family moved to Washington state after Brandon's death. Beddingfield's message when he talks to PFLAG groups is the importance of how parents react to their child's recent declaration of their sexuality.
"The message that I give out to people is how vital and crucial it is to love your child no matter what. A lot of parents go through the phase when their child is coming out of 'What did I do wrong? What's going to happen to me? My kid is not going to be like I wanted him to be.' They need to stop and realize what their child is feeling and the emotional impact on them," he said.
Beddingfield isn't out at work, since he was doing work in a part of Tennessee he found dangerous, considering Klan meetings were actually held in that town. And at 19, he is a leading Titanic historian. His age doesn't matter in that field, he said, because you can't study Titanic history in school.
"Since 5th or 6th grade, I've always been fascinated with the story. It is the greatest peacetime Maritime disaster in history. In the two hours and 40 minutes from the time she hit the berg, you had the most incredible human drama that has ever unfolded. There are so many heroes and so many cowards. The event of what happened that night is unparalleled to anything in history," he said. "There are very few people in the world who have a deep passionate love for Titanic. Our organization does in-depth research where we go through White Star Line documents, old photographs, survivor interviews, trying to learn more about what happened that night."
This summer, Beddingfield will get to go down and see the wreckage for the first time. He works for the company that has legal guardianship of the wreckage, and their mission this summer is to raise part of the Titanic.
On the subject of the movie, Beddingfield points out a laundry list of historical inaccuracies, and wishes the whole love story was excised since it didn't exist in history. He enjoys the sinking, which was accurate, but he said he doesn't understand how 1500 people drowning isn't enough drama for Hollywood and they have to throw something else in on top of that.
The movie still rests in his top three movies of all time with In The Line of Fire, and Cocoon, the movie Brandon always used to make him watch. Now, however, Brandon's attraction to the movie makes sense.
"I never even understood what he saw in it until after he died. But those people in Cocoon got the most incredible opportunity to go to a place where there's no pain, poverty, crime, war, problems," he said. "They never get sick, get older or die. And you're going to be with your loved ones forever. It's about how you have to leave earth, though. You'll have to leave earth and your friends and your family, but think of the advantages you'll have. It just seemed like he wanted that perfect world."