A few years ago I was waiting for a delayed airplane departure with my friend Jim and we got to talking about various things. Somehow we got to AIDS. I started to describe a time in my life, well before I met Jim, when it seemed as though everything was wrong and bleak and broken, and that I wholly believed that the world would never seem right again.
"Did it?" Jim asked, which was a question I wasn't expecting.
"Yes," I said, as if I'd never even considered that before. "The world did seem right again." Could you know me at all and not know that I believe that? But it was a startling thing to say out loud.
It was just like they say in all those weepy movies, or what they say to distraught widows, in all its cliched banality. The sun comes up the next day. The sea rushes to shore. The world does not end. Maybe the most surprising thing is that there is always more fun to be had, although there was never a moment where I didn't believe that part of it.
AIDS remains difficult to write about. Back in the bleak days I used to say that there was a chasm between those whose lives it affected and those whose lives it did not, and there was no possible communication from one side to the other. So why bother? I still think this is true, but it doesn't seem as important a concern to me now.
AIDS is difficult to write about in part because when you start to think about people you've lost you start to lump them all together in a mental category of "AIDS" and that isn't quite right. Bill was Bill and Dave was Dave and Victor was Victor and Jimmy was Jimmy and what use is there in categorizing them as people who died from AIDS? What do you learn? How does it help?
Well, sometimes it helps. When my friend Rue was diagnosed he told me that he envisioned this fabulous dance club in heaven where they are having a great time and saying, "Who does this party need? Him, and him, and her!" and voila! the diagnosis. Of course this was Rue. I happened to be visiting him in LA in 1988 when he was preparing a speech he was going to give for the Christopher Street West Foundation, which was giving him a big award. He was going to use the speech to come out as a person with AIDS. I was reading in his living room, occasionally distracted by the sight of him rubbing his hands together and smirking, "There won't be a dry eye in the house!"
Ok, ok, the other Rue story from that day. It was his birthday -- his 32nd, he was my age -- and he went off on a riff about greeting cards he was going to produce for gay men. "Congratulations on your T Cell Count". "Happy Birthday -- Wishing You Several More." "Saw the Quilt, Didn't see your name, Thought I'd write."
I take back what I said earlier. Some of the emotion surrounding this is very much living.
Another difficulty in writing about AIDS is that I sometimes feel that I have no authority to do so. There are many people who lost their entire social circle, and countless others who nursed their partners through illness, and thousands whose lives were directly affected on a daily basis in a way that mine was not, including those who themselves are HIV-positive. Anything I could say about what I went through is small in comparison.
But this is what I went through, in part.
In the fall of 1984 I was part of a group that started the gay/lesbian band in Boston, and then in the fall of 1985 I attended my first national conference. This, at last, was the connection I had always been looking for, the connection with other gay men and lesbians. This was the secret key that I could never previously find, however much I went out looking, and there it was right on my music stand. It was a heady time, of meeting people in Boston and meeting people in cities around the US, of learning about all sorts of pieces of the gay community. Somehow, in this context, I was not an alienated outsider. It was a great time, one that influenced my life for many years.
Following along mere inches behind on the heels of the discovery of this new world for me were the deaths of many of the people I was meeting. This included people with whom I was growing quite close. Finding community at last, and then seemingly losing just as I found it, was painful. I wanted to scream UNFAIR UNFAIR UNFAIR! (and I probably did, at least in private). Well, it wasn't fair, for a lot more reasons than this.
Here's an anecdote that might show what this world was like, from around 1989 or so. My friend Doug, in the San Francisco band, was made stand partner on first clarinet with my friend Cathy. She said to him, "You can only be my stand partner if you promise not to die on me." Cathy had been stand partners with Charles in Dallas, then with Mark when she moved to San Francisco, and both of them had died shortly before. Doug duly promised and Cathy said, "Good, because I couldn't take another stand partner dying." Doug has been as good as his word.
Can you imagine the world that would inspire that exchange, one in which that exchange was actually funny, and repeated to me as a humorous anecdote? As I say, there was always fun to be had.
I have a program from the national gay/lesbian band concert we performed on the eve of the 1987 March on Washington, with a band of a few hundred. For a while I kept tabs of the number of men listed in that program who died -- most of whom I knew more than casually -- until I decided, when I'd reached about 40, that this was macabre. I have pictures of me at band conferences throughout the late eighties, laughing and playing my drum and marching and sitting in dressing rooms with my band friends. For many of these pictures, I am the only one still alive.
What does one make of this? What does one learn from this? What does one do with this? How can you write about it?
But the funny thing, the surprising thing, the thing I did not believe would ever happen, is that it all seems like a very very long time ago now.