By Kathleen LaTosch
He was 14 years old when his gay father died from AIDS. Six months later his lesbian mom and her partner were shot point blank by their next-door neighbor, leaving him orphaned. He has shuffled around to various family members who counseled, “everything is God’s plan.” His parents’ sexual orientation was not celebrated in the family but rather whispered about in dark corners with sideways glances and hand gestures. He was shielded from the murder trials. The loss of his parents created a deep, gaping hole in him and he grew progressively more angry at the lot life had thrown him, acting out in unhealthy ways until he was eventually kicked out of his family’s home and living homeless on the streets. He found “family” when he was co-opted by a local gang and entered their world. He was 17.
His story is compelling to me. I have two sons and wonder what would happen to them if both Jen and I passed away. They would likely fare better than Joshua Puckett, yet I wonder. As lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Michiganders, we have fewer rights then we had ten years ago. We have no family health insurance if working for the State, we have no access to second-parent adoption, and we are constitutionally prohibited from ever legally marrying the one we love, benefiting from hundreds of financial and legal protections that go along with that critically important contract.
His story is also compelling to me because his mother was Christine Puckett, one of the founding board members of Affirmations who offered up a Detroit rental property to house the Helpline in 1988 before Affirmations established its formal Ferndale office. Josh remembers well the “switchboard” and all the LGBT community members hanging out at the house. We were part of his extended family and his hall of memories. His mothers remain forever enshrined at Affirmations Community Center in Ferndale in its memorial naming of the “Pittmann-Puckett Art Gallery.” Josh is a lost child of our LGBT community.
And his story is also compelling because he was a cub scout. A member of the Boy Scouts of America which just decided to continue its ban on gay scouts and gay scout leaders, professing that they believe that being gay should only be discussed with children by their parents. So – and here’s the leap – not only will they not talk about it in the boy scouts, they’re banning anyone gay from coming near them. It’s new Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, relegating gay scouts to a shameful, secretive existence that chips away at their self-esteem putting them at greater risk for substance abuse, homelessness, and suicide. And for straight scouts, how many have gay parents, brothers, lesbian sisters? How do they feel when Boy Scout leaders tell them their family members are only to be discussed behind closed doors in hushed voices?
It’s not too different from the messages Josh Puckett got after his parents died, parents whose deaths were driven by the same social stigma now being enforced by the Boy Scouts of America.
How do I know all this? In May of this year, Affirmations’ Executive Director David Garcia and I took a road trip to the Shiawassee State Penitentiary in the Upper Peninsula to meet Josh, where he has spent the last 16 years of his life behind bars. In 1997, Josh’s gang was involved in a drive-by shooting on Detroit’s southwest side that killed an innocent 12-year-old girl. He didn’t pull the trigger and he didn’t drive the shooter, but he did aid and abet. Josh was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was 19.
I’ve decided to support his request for commutation of sentence. A request for commutation of the sentence means he fully admits his role, his responsibility for his part in the crime, in the girl’s death. And it means he’s asking for some level of forgiveness so that he can come back to society and tell his story. So that perhaps he can help make a difference in the lives of LGBT youth, of youth with gay parents. So that he might help prevent this from happening to another child.
If you would like more information about his story, visit http://www.FreeJoshPucket.com. For more information about Sue Pittmann and Christine Puckett, visit http://www.PittmannPuckett.com.