Tacoma City Paper, September 24-30, 1998 
Updated with new information December 2002
Cover illustration, Tacoma
City Paper picturing Amy
Coleman and Bob Stillman

A mother in Olympia, a dying man in Los Angeles, a young hemophiliac in Australia -- Victims of personal tragedy find love, hope and family confronting their fears
Living in the Bonus Round
Music, suicide, healing broken spirits -- life and love on the Internet in the age of AIDS

by Alec Clayton

To paraphrase the opening of an old television show, there are eight billion stories on the World Wide Web. This is one of those stories. It is the ongoing saga of a songwriter living with AIDS, a mother who lost her son to suicide, and the way their friendship, started online, has given renewed hope to countless people around the world.

Steve Schalchlin (pronounced Shack-lin) is a songwriter in Los Angeles living with AIDS, a gay man and the son of a Southern Baptist preacher. Gabi Clayton is a woman living in Olympia, Washington. Her teen-age son took his own life because he could no longer cope with the harassment and beatings he suffered because of his sexual orientation. Steve and Gabi met through the Internet. And through this Internet connection they soon expanded their friendship to include others from around the world -- a young hemophiliac who is HIV+ from a blood transfusion, a woman who lost two sons, students, doctors, people living with AIDS, and many others. Thanks to the instantaneous connections made possible by the Internet, they have become family -- bound tightly together despite thousands of miles of physical separation. This family grew out of tragedy and now flourishes in hope.

From death to life

In 1996 Steve thought he would die within months. Hooked to an intravenous feeding bottle14 hours a day and wasted down to 135 pounds, he wanted to tell his friends and family about his experience with AIDS while he still could. A friend gave him a computer, and he started an Internet diary that soon attracted thousands of readers. He also began writing songs about his life. The first was a song called “Connected,” which pulled together the image of being connected to tubes in the hospital with the need for people to connect their lives. It was inspired by an incident that happened during his first trip to the hospital. Anson Williams, the actor who played “Potsie” on “Happy Days,” happened to be in the hospital that day. He saw Steve laid out on a hospital gurney, connected to tubes and bottles, and asked him what was wrong. “I’ve got AIDS,” Steve answered, later reminiscing, “It was the first time I had ever said the word. But I didn’t say it, I shouted it. I thought he would go running from the room. But instead, he came over and took me by the hand.” Williams encouraged him to fight the disease. Steve later joked, “I decided to live that day because I didn’t want the last celebrity I ever saw to be Potsie.”

Steve’s life partner of many years, Jim Brochu, is a writer. Jim starting giving Steve “assignments” to write songs. “Take the pain and turn it into melody,” he said, “then take the hopelessness and turn it into song.” The songs poured out, and out of those songs grew a loosely autobiographical musical called “The Last Session.” Jim wrote the book, and Steve wrote the music and lyrics. They arranged a limited reading of the play in Los Angeles, with Steve playing the lead role. He was spending fourteen hours a day hooked up to intravenous nourishment, and then rushing to rehearsals each evening; his greatest hope at the time being that he would live long enough to see their play performed just once. Meantime, he had started taking the new protease inhibitors and his health and strength were returning.

Making connections

Don Kirkpatrick, an advertising professional in El Paso, Texas, came across Steve’s website. “His story of his struggle with AIDS was riveting,” Kirkpatrick said. “Coupled with this gruesome tale of a man dying before my virtual eyes was his recounting the birth and growth of ‘The Last Session’. I decided that I wanted to see it at its first full production at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood.” 

Don offered $500 to help produce Steve’s first CD, Living in the Bonus Round, thus named because four years beforehand Steve’s doctor told him he would be dead in a year. He also invested money to help the show get to New York, where it had a four-month run at the tiny off-off Broadway Currican Theatre, followed by a five month run off-Broadway at the 47th Street Theatre. At both venues the show played to sold-out houses and rave reviews. “It was a howling success,” Don said.

“The Last Session” was more than a howling success. It was a life-giving phenomenon. People who were dying and people who felt they had no reason to go on living began going to see the play over and over. They went into the theater defeated and came away renewed. 

In 1996, Gabi Clayton, a mental health counselor in Olympia, Wash., decided to design a simple web page with a photograph of her son, Bill. Underneath the photo she inscribed: “This page is in honor of one of my two sons, Bill Clayton. Bill was openly bisexual. In April of 1995, he was assaulted in a hate crime. On May 8, 1995, Bill committed suicide, despite loving support from his family, friends and many wonderful people in our community. Bill was 17 years old. He was a bright, warm and creative young man. He is greatly missed. Please remember him and speak out to end discrimination, hate speech, and violence against people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered.”

Steve stumbled onto Gabi’s site. “I saw a picture of a particularly angelic young face with a kind of impish smile,” Steve said, “and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from that face. Every day for a week or more I’d return to Gabi’s page and look at that face. Sometimes I’d just sit and stare without emotion. Sometimes I’d sit there and tears would roll down my cheeks. But I kept going back, haunted by that sweet, innocent smile and wondering why anyone would hurt this child.”

Steve wrote to Gabi, igniting a wonderful friendship, one that she says helped her to come to terms with her grief over her son’s death. Steve asked Gabi to tell him the whole story of what had happened to Bill. Inspired by Steve’s site, Gabi was already working on an expanded version of Bill’s story. She sent it to Steve, saying, “Do whatever you want with it.” So he posted it on his own website.  

 “It was a bit of a surprise for me the next morning when he sent me a URL and there it was,” Gabi said. “But I knew it was what I had to do, so I soon moved it to my pages and it has grown from that.”

When Steve’s first CD came out, Gabi opened it and was surprised to read in the liner notes: “In memory of Bill Clayton and dedicated to Shawn Decker. Thanks to Don, Ronda, Kim, Jim, Gabi, Tracey...” Many of the people mentioned in the dedication had formed a network of friendships begun on the Internet and extended into the real world.

The nubihes

As Steve’s song, “Connected” says, we all must be connected to each other. And connections on the Internet become as complicated as the wiring in our homes and offices, one person connected to another and another and another. Sometimes these people meet in real life, and what we typically hear is that such real-life meetings are disappointing. Sometimes tragic. Not so with Steve, Gabi and their Internet friends. This network of friends became a growing circle. It introduced Shawn, a young hemophiliac living with HIV since he was 11 years old to Tracey, a student who took Steve to Old Dominion College in Virginia for a performance to raise money for an AIDS related charity; it gave Luke, another young hemophiliac from Australia (HIV positive since he was three) a chance to meet Kerry and the love of her life, a pet pig named Hoover; for Ronda, a music producer in L.A. and a longtime-friend of Steve’s, there was an introduction to Linda, a woman who was struggling with accepting of homosexuality. As a virtual support group, these Internet friends began to call themselves Nubihes, an almost-acronym for Numerous Big Hearts and One Big Head. (Steve is the big head.)

The way Linda became a Nubihe typifies the way these and other connections happen. While trying to learn from Steve, via the Internet, about homosexuality and homophobia, Linda learned her own daughter was a lesbian. Panic stricken, she wrote to Steve asking, “What to I do?”

 “You need to talk to my friend Gabi,” Steve responded. When Linda and Gabi met on-line, Gabi soothed Linda in the way she does other parents who contact her with similar questions. “Did you love your daughter before you found out she was gay?” Gabi asked. “Well, she’s still the same daughter.”

The Last Session

The New York production of “The Last Session” was nominated for Best Musical by the New York Outer Critics Circle and by the New York Drama League. Bob Stillman, in the lead role of Gideon, had recently played the lead in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” on Broadway. He later told Gabi that before being cast as Gideon he had become a little disillusioned with show business but “The Last Session” made him remember why he had fallen in love with theater to begin with.

Gideon, based on Steve, is a former gospel singer who is dying of AIDS. When he can no longer face what the disease is doing to him, he decides to commit suicide. But first he invites his old friends back into the studio for one last recording session. None of them know that he plans to kill himself. One of the old group cannot show up and Buddy, a homophobic Christian, is his unexpected replacement. The clash between Buddy and Gideon is so strong that at one point Gideon breaks out in angry song: “I’d rather be me with AIDS than to have to be you without it ... At least I know what’s killing me.” Their conflict remains unresolved, but each learns to see the humanity of the other.

Despite the harsh realities of AIDS, suicide and bigotry, “The Last Session” is a musical full of hope and humor. Jim, who directed the show, said on an MSNBC interview, “It’s the funniest play about suicide you’ll ever see. People come out of the theater and I see their faces and they say, ‘You’ve changed my life. I came in feeling depressed and now I know I can go on.’“

Going Ahead

 Since Steve and Gabi met on the Internet, both their websites and their personal lives have expanded. Gabi is now the webmaster for the Safe Schools Coalition, and she is a cofounder of FUAH, Families United Against Hate, a nationwide coalition created by and for families and survivors of hate motivated violence to offer support, guidance and assistance to families and individuals dealing with incidents based on bias. Bill’s Story has been translated into German, Japanese, Portuguese, French and Spanish. Gabi has appeared on television and radio shows, including an appearance on the Rikki Lake show and in the documentary “Teen Files: The Truth About Hate.” Articles about her have appeared in newspapers and magazines in Australia, Canada and the United States.

Steve’s website, likewise, continues to grow. “The Last Session” has become a huge success and has played to sellout audiences in major cities across the United States, including Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, Baltimore, Denver, Rochester, Cincinnati and Dallas. Steve tours the country performing his songs and telling his story. Steve and Jim’s newest musical “The Big Voice: God or Merman?” opened in Los Angeles in 2002.

People who access Gabi and Steve’s websites often e-mail them to ask for help with their personal problems -- living with AIDS, coping with bigotry, seeking connections with someone who understands -- or to thank them for giving others hope to carry on. But it is not all positive. There is also hate mail, such as a letter to Gabi suggesting she “end her angst” by committing suicide so that she could join her dead son.

Among other things, this group of friends offers one another support in the face of such hatred. Although they originally met on-line, most of them have now met in “real time.” During the New York run of “The Last Session,” many of them got together on two separate occasions, one an opening weekend party and the other a party for Internet friends, members of the cast and others. They came from as far away as Australia and Brazil.

Back in 1997 Don Kirkpatrick flew Gabi to New York for the opening weekend of “The Last Session” as a surprise for Steve. It was the first time they met in person. “The day she flew to New York for the opening of my musical, and I put my arm around her, I think we both wept,” Steve said. “Of the things I’ve done in cyberspace, of this I am the most proud.”

Getting Connected
Resources for joining The Nubihes and discovering a life beyond AIDS on the Internet

Living in the Bonus Round -- Steve Schalchlin's Online Diary

Gabi Clayton's homepage

Bill's Story

copyright © Alec Clayton 1998

Home        Art        Writing     

Top of page