ONE EVENING THREE YEARS AGO, Ty Ross brought an acquaintance who was in the Air Force to the hilltop home of his grandfather, the venerable symbol of American conservatism, Barry Goldwater. The onetime presidential candidate, then 84, reminisced about his own Air Force days and showed off a roomful of model airplanes he had built. But as the men settled into the den, Ross's friend told Goldwater that he, like Ross, was gay, and the Air Force was about to discharge him because of it. "That's the damnedest thing I ever heard," Ross recalls the elder Goldwater saying. Two weeks later, during the national debate over whether to allow gays in the military, Goldwater, outspoken as ever, wrote in a bristling Washington Post op-ed piece, "You don't need to be straight...to shoot straight."
Reaction was swift. Staunch conservatives, already angered by Goldwater's support for abortion rights, threatened to remove the former senator's name from every street sign and school in Arizona. "Everybody thought he was senile or losing his marbles," says Ross, now 35. But Ross felt proud. "I looked at it," he says, "as a kind of approval."
Growing up gay with the Goldwater legacy hadn't been easy. In order to keep a low profile, Ross, who has the same deep-set blue eyes and angular jaw as his famous grandfather, never broadcast his family ties during his teens. But the discomfort of being a gay teen was nothing compared with what he would later face. In 1989, Ross, then an interior designer living in Los Angeles, took an AIDS test for caution's sake. "I thought I'd be negative," he says. He was not. He remains symptom-free and optimistic, but, he says, being HIV-positive "gives you this strange sense that your hourglass just got turned upside down."
Born in Torrance, Calif., the third of four children of Tom Ross, now 62 and a Scottsdale, Ariz., surgeon, and Barry Goldwater's daughter Joanne, 60, who runs a gourmet salsa company, Ross springs from one of Arizona's most prominent families. The first Goldwater arrived from Poland in the 1800s and began a dry-goods business that his son—Barry's father—expanded into a chain of department stores. Gold-water parlayed his family's success into a political career, winning election to the Senate in 1952. His popularity would eventually prove both a blessing and a bother to his children. "Every time I gave birth, there would be a blurb in every paper in the country," says Joanne. When Goldwater campaigned in L.A. during the 1964 presidential election, Joanne and Ty, then 3, and his three sisters appeared at Goldwater's side. Ross remembers only "driving around in a lot of Lincoln town cars."
Ross's parents divorced in 1968, and he moved with his mother to Arizona, where he became, he says, a "mama's boy" who played with dolls. At 15, he told his mother he was gay. "I kind of knew," she replied. His father sent Ross to a military school for a year, hoping to toughen him up. But his mother says, "It was something I totally accepted." Feeling out of place in conservative Phoenix, Ross bolted for L.A. after graduating high school in 1979.
There, he earned an art degree at California State University North-ridge, worked for various design companies and blended comfortably into gay society. Only after testing HIV-positive did he return to Phoenix in search of a "healthier lifestyle." Today, he treats even the slightest cold seriously, and he is shaken by the deaths of so many friends. "It's like they're jumping off of a boat and you're left to man the sails," he says.
Ross has drawn courage from his family and friends, especially Gary Ragadio, 35, a Home Depot supervisor he met through an alternative healer last spring. "I was taken aback at first when I found out who he was," says Ragadio, who also has HIV Ross designs dolls, inspired by Hopi kachinas, that are sold in gift shops. The couple now live in a bungalow surrounded by cacti, rent-free in exchange for helping the owner with renovations.
On occasion they visit grandfather Barry, who recently suffered a mild stroke but has become his grandson's unwavering champion. During a recent visit, Ross nodded his approval as his grandfather gruffly predicted, "The day is going to come when whether a person is gay or not isn't going to matter."
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Phoenix
- Michael Haederle.