Nashville loses a LGBT leader and friend
by Steven Davison
Rod was my friend for more than 27 years. I am honored to be able to memorialize a man so loved and respected by so many in our community.
Rodney Lyle Bragg was born on April 10, 1955 in Oakland, Maryland. He grew up in West Virginia in the towns of Elenor and Clarksburg. He is survived by his parents Edsil and Lovern Bragg, his sister Regina Haight and her husband Dave, all of South Carolina; his son Reginald Morgan Bragg and his partner Melissa of Greenbrier, Tennessee; his son Timothy Bragg and his wife Brittany and their children Jackson and Jordan of Ann Harbor, Michigan; his daughter Michelle Daily and her husband Ryan of Wilmington, NC; his former husband of 22 years Windle Morgan of Nashville, and all of us, his friends, many of whom he regarded as family as well…
I first met Rod in 1990. He was hired to be the pastor of The Metropolitan Community Church here in Nashville. My former partner and I drove to Pittsburgh and loaded Rod’s things in a moving truck and physically moved him to Nashville. When we arrived at the home he rented, many members of the congregation were there to greet him with food and hugs and help him unload the truck. That was Rod’s welcome to Nashville.
Rod was a dedicated pastor. I have seen him officiate at weddings, give eulogies at memorial services, and deliver Sunday messages that were always respectful, encouraging, and reassuring. Never shaming. Never judgmental.
After arriving in Nashville, Rod became a public advocate for LGBT rights. He helped coordinate and participate in one of the first gay pride marches in Nashville. There were maybe 50 people there. This year, Rod and I attended the pride celebration together with our friend Rich, and Rod marveled at the thousands in attendance.
Rod was active in organizing and participating in the Cracker Barrel sit ins in Middle Tennessee in the early 1990s when Cracker Barrel was public about their discrimination against LGBT employees and customers. This year Cracker Barrel was one of the sponsors of the Pride. Rod laughed and commented about how far things had come. Rod was willing to be the face of the LGBT community of Nashville in the media. He did this at a time when it was less safe. He had great courage in that way.
Rod was the first openly gay man to be a foster parent in the state of Tennessee. He later became the first openly gay man permitted to adopt an infant in Tennessee. When Rod and Windle had their first date, Rod brought six-month-old Reggie along with him. After Rod and Windle had their union ceremony, they and Reggie were one of five families nominated to receive Family and Children’s Service’s Family of the Year award.
When Rod left the ministry he pursued a career in mental health care. He became an advocate for persons with mental illness and chemical dependency. One of his first jobs was with the mobile crisis team. He was instrumental in saving the lives of persons who were in mental health crisis and at risk for suicide.
Rod was an advocate for people with chemical dependency. He knew all the available services in Tennessee and helped people with and without financial resources access the help they needed. He held several positions with different mental health and chemical dependency treatment organizations and eventually went to work for the state, ultimately rising into the role of Assistant Commissioner in the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services for the TN Department of Mental Health.
He was an advocate for racial equality. If Rod heard anyone make a disparaging racial comment, he would be the first to confront them and hold them accountable for their words; still without judgment or shame, but seizing an opportunity to educate.
Outside of work Rod was an artist. He had an eye for color and design. I might comment that something was purple. Rod would say “Well, it isn’t really purple, its more scarlet with periwinkle undertones.” He took pottery classes and made pieces he kept for himself and some he gave to others as gifts. Friends would often consult him about decorating their homes. He helped many friends pick out colors, fabrics, and furniture.
Rod loved to entertain. He was a wonderful southern chef and said cooking gave him pleasure. When invited to Rod’s home you usually ate on china, drank from crystal glasses and always had a cloth napkin. He loved to cook for friends, especially on special occasions like birthdays and holidays.
Rod was a terrific baker. He often made birthday cakes or desserts for his friends. He didn't bake the usual white cake with white frosting. He baked three-layer Red Velvet cake, German Chocolate, Humming Bird. I never heard of Humming Bird cake until I met Rod. I once saw him use a blow torch to brown the top of his crème brûlée.
Rod loved flowers. He said fresh flowers were one thing he would splurge on every week. There were always fresh cut flowers in his home. He is the only person I know who could raise orchids. The secret he said was to put one ice cube in each orchid every week. He could give Martha Stewart a run for her money.
Rod loved people. He could talk to anyone. In spite of his education and success, he was never arrogant or pretentious. He believed everyone had a right to be themselves and live their life as they saw fit. He was plugged in to many professional and social networks, meet up groups, and community organizations.
He had a great sense of humor. He loved to laugh and make others laugh. He wouldn’t hesitate to tell you about something silly he had done, a mistake he had made, or allow himself to be
witnessed as imperfect. I would sometimes think “oh Rod, I don’t think I would share that about myself”. But Rod had self-confidence. He could be authentic in ways that I envied.
My friendship with Rod grew from the time he arrived here, especially in recent years. We confided in each other often. We had to stay close friends because we knew too much dirt on each other to risk becoming enemies.
Rod was indeed one of the most courageous men I have ever known. He had the courage to put himself on the front line, to fight for causes he believed in even when they were unpopular, to speak his mind, to show up authentically, to take criticism, and to persevere through adversity … until he determined he would persevere no more.
Rod’s death comes as a shock to all of us. Rod struggled with depression most of his life. He was not only an advocate for mental health treatment, he was also a consumer. He was open about this. He used his own mental illness to educate others.
Over the past few years Rod was under a lot of stress due to multiple life changes and changes in his health. In addition to depression, he was also experiencing early dementia. He was often forgetful and sometimes confused. Last year he began an alternative treatment to medication, and it seemed to be helping. He said he was feeling better, had more energy. Through it all, Rod stayed connected with friends and colleagues. He kept appointments with his mental health providers. He remained active in his neighborhood and loved walking to the restaurants and pubs near his home to meet old friends and make new ones. He was excited about a new non-profit he was helping form and for which he would be the executive director.
He seemed to be doing better than he had in years. Two days before he died, he made dinner for his Saturday night card group—something not out of the ordinary. He cooked for his friends often. The day of his death he had brunch with his friends Becky and Jr.
Later that day he had dinner with me and Johnny. At dinner, he confirmed plans to go to a concert with us later in the week. The next morning, he planned to have breakfast with his friend Rich. There were no overt warning signs. We are all dismayed that a man loved by so many would not reach out. That a man who knew the available resources and who could access them, would not use them. It is ironic that the very last thing Rod did in his life was the exact thing he spent so much of his life helping others avoid.
Before coming here today I did some research on statistics related to suicide in the US and specifically Tennessee. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US. Over 44,000 Americans die from suicide every year.
Men are almost 4 times more likely to die by suicide than women. White males between the age of 45 and 64 have the highest rate of completed suicide in the US and most of them die using firearms. Tennesseans have a higher suicide rate than the national average. In TN one person dies by suicide every 8 hours. Annually, more than twice as many people die from suicide in Tennessee than by homicide.
The organization known as Survivors of Suicide states that “the common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution. That Suicide is not a pointless or random act. To people who think about ending their own lives, suicide represents an answer to an otherwise insoluble problem or a way out of some unbearable dilemma. It is a choice that is somehow preferable to another set of dreaded circumstances, emotional distress, or disability, which the person fears more than death.”
Rod left a note, but it does not answer all our questions about why he took his life. Some questions will never be answered. We might find ourselves feeling uncomfortable emotions like sadness, anger, and confusion. We might feel deceived or betrayed by Rod. All of these are normal emotions when grieving and when dealing with the suicide of a friend or family member.
In the days and weeks ahead it will be important to take care of ourselves in the ways that work best for us as individuals. Talk to others, journal, meditate, pray, give and receive hugs from those close to you, use community resources available for suicide survivors. You can postpose grief, but you cannot prevent it. Feel your feelings. They are normal and reasonable and you are not alone.
Our thoughts of Rod in the future will always be framed by the last few seconds, the last thing he did, the last choice he made. Rod would not want us to remember him in this way. He would want to be remembered for all he gave us in the 62 years prior; his love, his friendship, his laughter, his courage, his advocacy, his ministry, his beautiful children, his flowers, his creme brûlée, his art, his style, all the things that made him the unique man we grew to love.
I will miss him forever.