memorial day weekend 2014, hbo brought us ryan murphy’s film adaptation of larry kramer’s play “the normal heart”. memorial day indeed.
1981 heralded in what is the most prolific alarm of my lifetime; a mysterious gay cancer that was leveling the souls of a once small number of gay men in american urban meccas with the voracity of weed whacker on a summer day on cul-du-sac. the real difference however was that the force behind the whacking seemed at once mercurial, invisible, and personal. and as hiv machete(d) a path through our lives those early years, it left deep and cavernous scar tissue that remains tender now and will remain so most likely to our end of days.
the first in our circle that i can really recall was john bennet. and i behaved like a complete ass towards him. he was a friend of blue’s and he was whispering in a loud darkened corner of the manhole about his diagnosis. i remember reacting to the news with complete and caustic judgement. how dare he pick such a place to disclose? so inappropriate. john slipped away within weeks. i saw him a couple more times and silently screamed at the horror of his weight loss and the onset of a death mask that became so damn common in our circles.
the biggest trauma for me was twofold. my bestie paul had moved to nyc to attend columbia. he was such a cutie-pie; handsome, intelligent, funny, awkward, and loving. he was buff and beautiful. he was ready for the 80’s. 2 years later he moved back to chicago having lost 1/3 of his body weight while learning to cope with constant diarrhea and thrush. we had become friends through restaurant work and soon moved on to food nerds and wine snobs as well. i remember upon his return going to dinner at a new tapas restaurant on halsted and witnessing his tears as the food we shared seared into his über delicate tongue like a branding iron.
i tested positive the same year paul died. the war front atmosphere of life for this gay man became too much to even pretend to handle. cocaine and vodka acted like a key to the door of my cellar of ignorance and i went there as often as i could. please don’t read this as “oh woe is me”. i don’t know many gay men and women who don’t still carry trauma from those years. it was much like that movie inception where the world starts to fold up on itself like a fold up chess board but with us as the pieces still remaining in play. that sort of experience takes time to comprehend, let alone move beyond.
i found the hbo production to be a beautiful gift. i think it is enormously thoughtful and detailed. it captures the essence of that time for me. i remember viewing actup the same way i reacted to john bennet. with judgement and avoidance. frankly, i don’t do conflict well. i learned early on that tuning out was my drug of choice and so faced with these hard realities, i did the only thing i knew.
but thank goodness for larry kramer, actup, and the revolution. i am so indebted to their ability to be present in that amazing crisis. i cared for people who needed it, but to have the where-with-all to scream at injustice like a scene from “invasion of the body snatchers” seems prolific and monument-worthy. as a culture, we were not prepared for any of this. we snapped and bitched at each other out of terror. it took years to find common ground and resolve. it took thousands of memorial services, funerals, and volunteer hours.
it was a complete loss of innocence for our people. there was a very short and immensely beautiful adolescence before we were thrust into adulthood. then there is ptsd, chemo-like medication, survivor’s guilt, repressed anger, and aging. don’t get me wrong. i love my life today. i love being sober. i love my vocation and being able to offer support to others. but i do still miss those days and those beautiful souls. and i would step back for a minute. even knowing what was coming.
Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunder-storm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols… Thomas Mann
thank you larry kramer. thank you peter staley. thanks to so many of you for guiding the ship while i threw up over the side. i honestly regret not seeing your inner light back then. i needed you. we needed you and never were able to recognize it, let alone appreciate how important expressing our anger would be and how far that would help us travel. and we helped our community and our world step into a new century with insight and understanding beyond imagination.