In the 1980s and 90s, AIDS ravaged gay communities, created doorknob hysteria and gave the public a medical excuse to shun homosexuality. It was the time period in which I came out—a time of fear and hatred. More significantly, it was a time when thousands of gay men died far too early, when a cliché like “only the good die young” became maddening. Nothing could soothe or help make sense of the tremendous loss.
I want the men—and women and children—who died from AIDS-related conditions to be remembered, their stores to endure. That is why the AIDS Quilt meant so much—loved ones reflected on the highlights of a life lived and honored that individual with a tapestry sewn together while working through their own grief. I remember sitting alone in an L.A. movie theater, watching the Oscar-winning documentary “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt” and being so distraught I couldn’t leave after it ended. Beautiful people gone. The haunting Bobby McFerrin soundtrack plays in my head as I recall the pervasive sadness (and the lighter moments) that make the film so vivid to me even now.
But the film’s threads were only snippets of a few of the people who died. So many small and big moments could not be shared in an 81-minute film. Years after a person dies, a loved one will continue to lament about moments that cannot be experienced together and he or she will feel intense guilt when realizing a whole day may have passed without thinking about the deceased person. Recalling the face, the mannerisms, the moments becomes harder. Photos provide an infusion.
And yet, just as veterans speak of concerns about the public forgetting the fallen in time of war, the same goes for those of us who lived, loved and lost during the peek of the AIDS crisis. Much good arose from dark times. Anger led to activism and, while some fortified their closets, many stepped out, embraced the (at the time) more in-your-face term “queer” and demanded acceptance and understanding, the stepping stones to today’s unrelenting push for equality.
Still, on the eve of World AIDS Day, I urge younger gays to Google something other than porn, to tweet something not about Miley and to learn more about a generation that watched vibrant individuals waste away in short, yet agonizing months. Find a copy of And the Band Played on by Randy Shilts or David Levithan’s new two boys kissing, read blog posts about World AIDS Day, watch “Common Threads”. Talk to those of us who are older. Ask us to share memories of sweet souls who died despite all the hope and courage they could muster.
By all means, celebrate your life. But, please, take some time to celebrate past lives of people who should still be with us. They still are, of course, if we can talk, share and remember.