The AIDS crisis happened. Millions of people died. Some of them I knew.
AIDS overshadowed my coming out process. Fear of death kept me from any period of sowing my wild oats. There were options, of course, but I always read “safe sex” as safer sex. And I was never much of a risk-taker.
I’d first heard of it watching a report by Geraldo Rivera on ABC’s “20/20”. At the time, it was called GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. Some rapid-moving disease was afflicting gay men, radically transforming their appearance and killing them. I watched the report while sitting uncomfortably alongside my parents in my family’s den in East Texas. At the time, I was conflicted and closeted. Concrete walls. Dozens of padlocks. I’d told my college roommate that I’d decided to be celibate for reasons I bumbled through. College and celibacy made for an odd cocktail. Innately, I was a survivalist. This was Texas. To be gay was to be a sinner, a pervert, a future pedophile. (It was a package deal.) And now it looked to be the target of a new holocaust.
It would not be much of an overstatement to say AIDS was always on my mind from 1985 to 1995. The first gay book I ever read was E.M. Forster’s posthumously published Maurice (1971). (Forster finished the first draft in 1914 but deemed the topic too taboo for publication.) It was a magical read that captured the fear in acknowledging my homosexuality but also the hope that love could come. The second gay book I ever read and the first I ever owned was And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts. This read offered no hope, only frustration, deep sadness and intense anger. I still tear up just looking at the cover of a book that informed me but also helped embolden me to remove one or two of those padlocks. My copy of the book found a place on a bookshelf instead of finding cover in the sock drawer.
I read every article I could find in newspapers. I scanned pamphlets from the Dallas AIDS Resource Center. I followed television reports and eventually began looking in professional journals. There seemed to be no hope in terms of treatment. If there was any feel-good element at the time, it was that AIDS was experiencing its own coming out. Anytime a politician spoke the word AIDS, it made headlines. Researchers began sharing findings at global conferences. And sometimes a prominent person had the gumption to tell Jesse Helms to shut up. It seemed there were little battles to be won in what was still overwhelmingly a lost cause.
It’s weird to think that AIDS helped me come out. It got me out of the bars in West Hollywood and allowed me to establish my first gay friendships that didn’t evolve from failed pickup lines. I even found love for the first time in my life after being introduced at an AIDS volunteer appreciation gathering. My AIDS buddy group facilitator dragged me onto the dancefloor, told me to stay put and then dragged out a certain AIDS Project Los Angeles employee. “You two should get to know each other.” And so we did.
At some point in the mid- to late-1990s, I began reading less about AIDS. At first, I’d skim the first paragraphs of an article, then I’d just glance at a headline. There had been some hopeful signs, but I’d hit AIDS overload. And then I received the news of my Dallas friend Farrell’s death through a Return to Sender stamp on a returned card I’d mailed him shortly after my move to Vancouver. Reason for Return: Deceased. He’d never dared to confide in me that he had AIDS. Living in Texas, the stigma remained too great. I think that’s when hope died within me. This extraordinarily kind, gentle soul, ultra-conscientious and responsible, a man with no family and few friends, likely died alone at the ripe old age of thirty-five. There was no answer to “Why?” I pulled away.
And almost at the moment I stepped back, real progress started to happen. People I knew who were HIV positive stayed like that. They averted what was supposed to be the imminent AIDS diagnosis. I still see them in passing today, twenty years later. No cure, but something that can be managed.
Wonderful, wonderful progress. It’s what we all yearned for so impatiently in the late 1980s and early 1990s and what most of us probably became resigned to not happening. Not in our lifetimes, however stunted they may turn out to be.
Maybe it’s because improvements in managing HIV and AIDS happened over time that there was never a time to celebrate as with the end of a war. It took so long and yet seemed to happen quietly overnight.
For the most part, these are good times to be gay, at least in a growing number of countries. The euphoria and expressions of Facebook support that came with last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage have no doubt made this summer’s procession of Pride Festivals in North America all the more festive. Let us indeed feel the joy.
And, yet, let us remember as well. Like the Holocaust, remembering is somber and many people don’t want to go there. Why do they keep bringing THAT up? According to amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research), nearly 39 million people have died of AIDS-related causes and more than a million people each year continue to die. Much remains to be done in less developed areas of the world. But even in places where treatments to manage HIV are accessible, there remains stigma and managing it comes at financial, physical, mental and emotional costs.
I’ve lamented before, but I fear we’ve become complacent. And I sense that the generation younger than us lacks perspective or any real appreciation about the decimating impact of AIDS on gay life and culture. Being back in Vancouver, I can access events that never made it to my rural area. A case in point was the screening of the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague” which played at a branch of the Vancouver Public Library two nights ago. I had read about the film when it was first released but there was no possibility to see it. A friend of mine thinks it may have had a few showings in Vancouver shortly after its release. Its total box office take was a paltry $132,055.
I saw a poster for the screening two weeks prior and excitedly photographed it and texted it to a friend. “Want to go?” It took him a day to respond but, yes, he was in. Being a free event, we knew seats would fill early. The day of the screening, my friend went online and learned that tokens for the screening would be given out an hour ahead of time. We were there even earlier. (There proved to be an added benefit as my friend shocked me in saying, “I haven’t been in a library in years.” He did some important sightseeing—“Wow. I thought all the books would be old and smelly.”—while I returned some books and used the internet to post a blog entry.)
With our tokens in hand—Victory!—we grabbed dinner at a nearby Thai joint and returned fifteen minutes before the 6:30 screening. We were the first to claim our seats. To my shock, there were less than fifteen people in attendance when the documentary rolled. (Three teens with fast food sodas popped in half an hour later, talking loudly and shuffling about. Two ducked out after three minutes; one stayed for a solid ten.)
It’s an important film, one that chronicles the efforts—some might say antics—of ACT UP and offers insightful perspective from those in the archival footage who indeed survived. It also shows us real heroes—people like Mark Harrington, Iris Long and Peter Staley. And it brings back the always agitated Larry Kramer—the world needs Larry Kramers, as polarizing as they may be—and Dr. Anthony Fauci, a man whom I’d once pinned so much of my hope on facilitating an early breakthrough. It reminds us of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, now warehoused in Atlanta, and not displayed in its entirety since, shockingly, 1996. Wouldn’t this be a fitting year to bring it back into public consciousness?
Where were all the other viewers? Maybe there’s a way to download it online. I could only find trailers for it on YouTube. (And how sad that as I began to type the film’s name, the prediction device offered “How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse” first.) Clearly, the library expected a big turnout as did I. It seemed like a sad joke when the librarian collected our tokens before pressing Play on the laptop. I suppose I’m becoming an elder statesmen, fretting that the young will be unaware of our past, but I am also alarmed about my contemporaries. I don’t see them at AIDS Walks and they were no-shows once again. (The other audience members seemed to be straight couples and an emotional sixty-year-old woman sitting behind me who frantically flicked some clicking device each time the film reached an intense moment.) It’s a gripping movie that has played to too few.
“Plague!” Larry Kramer shouts at one point. “Plague! This is a plague!” More than 6,000,000 had died by the film’s focused period ending in 1995. Holocaust numbers. There are active groups that help us remember the ravages and injustices of wars past. What about the AIDS crisis? Are there not others who feel it is critical that we remember, that we honor and that we pass on our own narratives?
It is my sincere hope that others connect forget as well.