For the past few months the LGBT community has been celebrating the “evolvement” of the public’s attitudes toward marriage equality. First, the President, followed by numerous Senators and Representatives, followed by the public at large. We are on the cusp of historic moment in LGBT history, one that will be remembered by many generations to follow. And in the midst of such celebration, I have been reflecting on those who will not be here share the joy of a momentous occasion.
Michelangelo Signorile, noted writer and radio show host, recently wrote an article entitled “The First AIDS Generation: Grappling With Why We’re Alive and What It Means. For those of us in our forties and fifties, we are survivors. Trust me, we have the emotional and mental scars to prove it. For many of us AIDS arrived just as we had come out of the closet, or were preparing to enter the free love era of bars, bath houses, and sexual indiscretion. As for myself, I had been trapped in gay depraved zone known as rural Alabama, dreaming of my escape to the big cities where I could finally become an active sexual member of the community. And it was at that moment the bottom fell out (no pun intended). The mysterious “gay cancer” was rampaging throughout the nation, first concentrating on the major gay havens of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles…later attacking destinations such as Miami/ Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta, Chicago, and P-Town. I never visited any of those locations until I was in my thirties and AIDS had already reached epidemic status.
Limited involvement did not protect me from the horror that was brought forth by AIDS. Living in Birmingham and Montgomery Alabama I developed a wonderful group of friends and associates. Even in the midst of the nightmare that was surrounding us, we would spend out weekends drinking and partying at gay clubs that stayed open 24 hours. In the back of our minds we always were conscious of the bogeyman called AIDS, but we felt we had escaped its mighty wrath. How wrong we were. Slowly, friends started to become less involved in the social dalliances of pool parties and all night dancing. And then rapidly they began to disappear. We would hear whispers of medical diagnosis for my friends. Ken has lesions on his arm and face….. Michael had gay pneumonia ….. for most of us, we buried our head in the sand, waiting for the fear to pass.
As for me, it started me on a strange trip of both denial and guilt. Like Signorile, I immersed myself into a support role – Providing volunteer legal assistance in wills and estate planning, doing my best to keep an emotional detachment from those making life-ending preparations. Such detachment continued when I moved to Birmingham, acknowledging the community was becoming devastated and disappearing yet trying to deal with the guilt of being a survivor. Eventually, for a quandary of reasons, I left Alabama and relocated in Central Florida. In a way it gave me the luxury of not having to keep up with who was sick or who had died…..Out of sight, out of mind. I withdrew from talking to friends back home because the discussions eventually led to who had passed away since my last phone call.
Guilt. Webster defines it as feeling of culpability for offenses. I define it as running away from reality, later returning with feelings of remorse and culpability. I will never know how many of my friends died alone…..how many had made a request for me to visit but I conveniently did not make such a time-consuming trip back home. One friend in the Florida panhandle was quickly slipping away and I received a phone call that Gerald would like to see me….. I planned to visit but was too late. However, I did make it to the memorial, where his surviving partner Tom gave me a video that Gerald had made for me a year earlier when he was much more lucid. It took me two years to have the balls to watch that video, crying over every second if it. It now remains one of my most valued possessions. It was at this time I became friends with a wonderful person who, like myself, found himself as a survivor in a sea of lost spirits. My friend has a photo of 16 hot, sexy and fun-loving friends, including himself, taken on the beach in South Florida…. They ran the gantlet from Key West to Daytona Beach, leaving a trail of broken hearts throughout the state. Within 3 years from when the photo was taken 11 of the 16 had died and 4 others were in the final stages. My friend remained the only survivor. We have shared our remorse…. Our guilt….. Asking why. We are both grateful to be alive, but what made us special?
For the past few months I cannot help but keep thinking of Ken, Michael, Gerald and my friend’s travel companions, all a part of my generation but unable to celebrate this changing acceptance of equality. In my mind I still remember the handsome, virile men who lived and loved the same as the rest of us, yet were struck down in their prime. Such thoughts bring a smile to my face but the guilt of being a survivor still prevents me from being able to dig out my old photo albums and talk to them about the recent changes in the community. In his article Signorile makes an effective comparison:
For gay men over 40, it’s as if we’ve come back from a war that was far away and distant to most Americans even as it was happening — like the actual wars we’ve experienced in this country in the past decade. All of us who were in the trenches of the AIDS war are today dealing with the grief and the survivor guilt, even as the war itself goes on. Many are grappling with deeper scars and something akin to post-traumatic stress. A lot of it is enmeshed in all the other issues people face, such as mid-life crises and aging.
So when we are celebrating the future victories that lay before us, please respect my quiet acknowledgment in the corner. My toast will be for my legions of friends who were not able to experience this festivity and the tears will be my champagne of remorse for being in the moment without them.
To my dear friends….Over the years, I still think of you, treasure our moments, and realize I still love each of you.
Executive Director / The GLBT Center of Central FL
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