I can still remember the scents, the sounds, the television movies and the intentional distractions associated with my first encounters with the HIV virus: its full-blown AIDS inevitability (at the time) replete with lesions forming volcanic country masses across innocent chests and arms, the crushed ego of acting legend Rock Hudson as his strong jaw turned sadly and vulnerably into a fading vibration, the tacit reconciliation that swallowed the fluttering falsetto of Queen’s regal Freddie Mercury as he sat before the clicks and clacks of prying press cameras to speak to the fact that he, too, had fallen, would fall, and, in fact, was dead shortly thereafter. I remember it all, because this is largely my history. We watched, we felt punished, my closet doors were glued shut, and this would never, ever happen to me.
But mostly I remember a telephone call to my landline in my Florida State University dorm room, one where the absence of air conditioning made everything feel like a sweaty inquisition, a drip pan for shame or humility.
“Welcome to the club,” my stepbrother Michael called to tell me having heard of my recent peek outside of closet doors and the requisite parental clenching that came after. “It’s not as bad as it seems,” Michael said. It was better than my mother’s “Don’t burn any bridges” advice, but nonetheless weighted down with anchors of societal doubt and the fear of a rising plague. Michael had AIDS.
I came out to my parents after numerous suicide attempts. I came out to my parents after meeting a guy with whom I slept, though he was dating a girl who would become pregnant shortly thereafter and then forever resent me. I came out in hair colors and prissy rants, music choices and fashion flourishes; I also came out because I belonged out. I was gay, regardless of this new seemingly senseless war devouring everyone in New York and San Francisco. I came out because I was having gay sex from a very young age thanks to suburban standards that turned tract houses in to silent Berlin black-box groping rooms where everything stayed in and nothing came out. Silence wasn’t death yet.
I also came out to Michael on the phone that day. And his kindness will never be forgotten. He died shortly thereafter in 1991 from complications related to his HIV/AIDS status. As his health was decaying, though said decay was never mentioned, Michael moved into our house. His bottom drawer next to his bed, next to what used to be my bed, housed a collection of International Male Undergear jewels and a colossus of stickier media propositions; they opened a door for me, though it wasn’t an easy door to hold.
In the end, Michael would be quarantined in the Caribbean by my family – as families often did at the time because of “dryer air” – and that’s where he would die – his father, my stepfather, on a rush in the air to catch Michael’s final terrestrial breath. He didn’t make it. Nor did the other he make it in time to say goodbye.
It’s a sad story, but it’s one that’s changed in so many ways since. I have continued to lose friends to the scourge of HIV/AIDS as most of you have, though these days, the sentences are longer, full of more lively flourish, coated in pills and warned by minor side effects. We’ve gone from cocktail handfuls to one-pill-a-day safety mechanisms, from Madonna mourning Keith Haring to less publicized mourning of our other forgotten soldiers. Times have changed, but feelings for those we lose have not.
Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day – also, my mother’s birthday, so I never forget – and we’re dedicating much of this issue to the developments within and without our community that have led us to our current medical plateau. Recent tests have shown that drugs like PrEP (or Truvada) can play a preventative role in the acquisition of HIV; its sister nPEP (also including Truvada) can serve as a morning-after pill. These are huge steps along the path to understanding how we, as responsible stewards of our global society, can stop a train with a pill in our hand and resolve in our hearts. Looks like we’ve made it, right?
Well, I can’t tell that to Bob, my first boyfriend, to Skotty, one of my best friends ever to save my life, to Skotty’s partner who fixed my flipped car to make it run for three more years, or, more importantly, to Alan, my alleged husband of 11 years who took his own life for many reasons, not the least of which being a viral load and some damaged organs. But I can whisper it into the wind that we are making it, slowly but surely, rightly and responsibly. We are making it.
Just please take a minute to remember. There are still so many doors to hold open.