Remembering the gay-rights leader from Chariton

John ChamberlainOpponents of gay marriage …

Sratch that …

Anyone who is even the least bit homophobic — there, that’s better — is fighting a battle they cannot win.

They are destined to lose because they will never defeat the spirit of people like John Chamberlain. In fact, it’s likely their views on gay marriage, gay rights AIDS, HIV and anything else they see as perverse, wrong or sinful about being gay would have changed if they had been lucky enough to know John.

Sadly, they will never have the chance to meet him the way I did just about a year ago. John died Saturday in Des Moines. He was 51.

He was many things to many people — son, brother, uncle, classmate, friend, lover, former University of Missouri Tigers cheerleader, HIV and AIDs activist, a public speaker with few equals and someone who is missed by nearly everyone who ever met him.

John grew up in Chariton, a countyseat town of about 5,000 people in southern Iowa, where he graduated from high school in 1980, I think. That was five years before I graduated from Chariton High School, so John never knew me back then. But I knew about him. Everybody did. He was an all-American kid — good looking, involved in everything. One of the popular kids.

At least that’s how he appeared to me back when I was a seventh grader.

Looking back now makes John’s accomplishments seem even more remarkable. For as much as I will always love my hometown, it’s not somewhere I would think of if I was asked to name anyplace where it would have been easy to grow up gay in the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s. I don’t know when John came out or how many people knew he was gay during his high school days. But if people knew, it must not have mattered, because John was one of the princes of CHS.

If you don’t believe me, you should read the remembrances of him that people are writing on Facebook.

It was on Facebook, in fact, where John and I became friends last February. On the page of a mutual friend, I think I spoutted off about something on which John agreed with me. After we became Facebook friends, he sent me a private message in which he asked: “How are you a Steinbach?  And are you a gay man?”

The first question is pretty typical because there are — or at least there used to be — many Steinbachs in Chariton. The second question is one I don’t remember ever being asked before.

When I told John I wasn’t gay, he  asked how I could be so understanding. I said it was because of the way my parents raised me, that I had gone to college in a relatively big city by Iowa standards and that I have lived in many places since I left Chariton for good nearly 30 years ago.

What I should have told him is that anyone who ever met him came away from the meeting with a better understanding of what it’s like to be gay. Today, they are sharing their stories about John and reaching out to even more people. His efforts will not end with his death.

The people who cannot be reached — those who would condem somone like John just for being gay — are fighting a battle they will never win. Whether they know it or not.

12 thoughts on “Remembering the gay-rights leader from Chariton

  • Thank you Chris for writing such a heartfelt and beautiful tribute for John. He was a remarkable man.
    Todd Buchacker

  • Chris, how right you are! Even if you didn’t “know” John, you knew who he was, your description was spot on. Growing up in Chariton couldn’t have been easy for anyone with questions about their sexuality, hey, it wasn’t a piece of cake for the rest of us. I wish I would have known John, he was the all American boy next door.

  • Nice article. We all admired John back then, but now, I respect him even more and admire his courage and the work he did. I graduated in 1981 and had the privilege of knowing John. He will be missed!

  • I graduated with John in 1980, if he struggled in Chariton he gave no sign of it. He was our class President and well liked by all. He always seemed like a guy who was comfortable in his own skin, not an easy task for any teen in small town America. His message will live on as long as we distribute his message and live the way he did, with integrity.

  • What a lovely tribute to an amazing man. The world is a better place because of people like John. Thank you Chris.

  • Really glad…and then, really not…that I stumbled onto your blog, Chris. I graduated with the class of 1981 from CHS, so I knew John well. Okay, obviously not THAT well. No idea he was gay, not that it would have changed how I thought of him back in those days. He was the guy you could look up to in so many ways. Almost like an older brother who really wasn’t that much older. But, wow! Could he NOT sing! Thanks for the tribute to him, Chris. Fond memories.

  • John came to Los Angeles when he was 19 and ended up staying with my husband and I for six months or so. He was a nice man (young adult) and I enjoyed living with him. He had a dream to become an actor… He came out while in California and I admired his strength to do so. He moved back to Iowa around a year to a year and a half later. Good on him that he never backed down from being proud of who he was.

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