Nick Crews went to Plainfield, Indiana’s, Maple Hill cemetery at dawn Tuesday. There, he read—through tears—the Indianapolis Star’s editorial on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to his brother.
“For me, it was a point of validation,” the 56-year-old told The Daily Beast. The Star had at times been quite conservative, and for this Indiana native, the editorial was a sign of a fundamental shift. Headlined “Fix This Now,” it affirmed the humanity and equality of his late brother after the state adopted a law many interpret as allowing open discrimination against gays and lesbians under the guise of religious freedom. Crews was so moved, he even wrote a letter to the editor about it.
Charlie Crews would have been 70 this year. But the shy, quiet Vietnam War veteran died of AIDS in 1985, long after he’d left his home state for San Francisco and, later, New Orleans. He had joined the Navy after dropping out of community college and served on river detail in Vietnam—just like in the movie Apocalypse Now, Nick says. Charlie struggled with alcohol addiction after coming home and then enlisted in the Coast Guard, which ultimately took him to San Francisco. There he came out during the era of Harvey Milk and the White Night Riots. On his deathbed in Louisiana, he told his brother about marching for the assassinated city supervisor: “You know, there’s only one time in my life when I was in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.”
In New Orleans, Charlie Crews was one of the first young gay men diagnosed with a mysterious new disease. Nick took a leave from school to take care of him, mediating between his brother and conservative family members, some of whom couldn’t bring themselves to face the reality of the circumstances around his death. “I never really got over it,” Nick Crews said of losing his brother.
In many ways, that relationship shaped Crews’s life and worldview. In his late teens, he’d also left Plainfield, hitchhiking across the country to join his brother in the Castro. He lived in there for a number of years, often feeling like the only straight man in a neighborhood of queer people.
He told his mother just before he was about to move to San Francisco. “She looks at me and she says, ‘Well, you know what your brother is, don’t you?’” Crews said. “And I said, ‘Yes, I do. He’s my brother.’”
“The thing that is so odd about it is that my brother never told me he was gay,” he now recalled, though Charlie had followed Harvey Milk’s directive and called his parents to let them know. “I guess I had always just kind of intuitively known.”
Nick Crews eventually moved back to Plainfield to take care of his ailing elderly parents, who had never really gotten over having a gay son who died of AIDS. When they passed away, he stayed, raising two daughters in the area. Like their uncle, both are gay.
But the Indiana of 2015 is very different from the Indiana of Charlie Crews's youth.
“It’s just been very heartrending for people who care about other people to see this level of acrimony,” Nick said of the controversy over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, adding that it’s not just young liberals who are feeling this way. “We all have people who we love and know who are gay or lesbian or transgender.” Even his boss, a moderate Republican, is “completely appalled by the entire situation,” he said.
On his way to the cemetery, Crews bought two copies of the Indianapolis Star—one for his brother and another to take to the office, so everyone could see how far the state had come.
“I know my brother escaped Indiana. I escaped Indiana,” Crews said. “But seeing now that there really is justice...I’m really feeling like there is a God.” Gov. Mike Pence, who signed the legislation, has faced a strong backlash. On Wednesday night, the Star reported that the state legislature would roll out a proposal Thursday to amend the law to include protections for LGBT people. Crews said he hopes that the state will soon not only weaken the anti-gay sections of the RFRA but also that it will enshrine non-discrimination into state law.
And Charlie Crews would be proud and hopeful, too, his brother says. “If he was in Indiana right now, he’d say, ‘It’s the first time in my life I’m in the right place at the right time doing the right thing,’” Nick Crews said. “Although he’d have to say ‘second.’”