Grief & loss / Identity / Life

Reflections on a Queer Childhood: Growing Up in the Shadow of AIDS

I, like so many gay men of my generation, have never had sex without the specter of death hovering just above my head. And I, like so many gay men of my generation, discovered who I am, and how my country feels about who I am, while growing up in the shadow of AIDS.

I was born in 1972, in a suburb of Washington, D.C. On July 4, 1981, on the eve of my 9th birthday, The Washington Post mentioned AIDS for the first time, although it was not yet referred to as AIDS. At that point, it was still just a mysterious disease. The Washington Post wouldn’t refer to it as AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, until December 10, 1982. I was 10.

Obviously, I didn’t read those articles as I was still more interested in choreographing big, splashy showstoppers to the soundtrack of Xanadu than I was in issues of public health and safety. I was too young to experience firsthand the tidal wave that crashed down upon an entire generation of gay men, leaving them either dead or shell shocked ~ too young to understand what was going on, or why. Actually, that’s not completely accurate. I was at that strange age between understanding and not understanding, between knowing and not knowing. I wasn’t capable of fully grasping what was going on and how it affected me, but I was capable of feeling what was going on and how it affected me. The messages were pretty gosh darned clear.

“AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” ~Jerry Falwell

Lovely. Clearly I’m not wanted here.

As the years wore on, I became increasingly conscious of the fact that the debate that raged in this country wasn’t about ways to stop the disease or its most efficacious treatments ~ the debate generally revolved around whether we, as a country, should just let the faggots die since they’re the ones getting it and they brought it upon themselves.

 “The government should spend less money on people with AIDS because they got sick as a result of deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.” ~Senator Jesse Helms

Then came Ryan White, who passed away from AIDS complications on April 8, 1990. The reporting was unambiguous ~ Ryan White’s case was newsworthy because he did not belong to the group that was supposed to get it; he was innocent, having contracted the disease through a blood transfusion ~ through no fault of his own. Because of that innocence, the prejudices he faced were viewed by the public as unwarranted. The headline for his obituary in the New York Times read, Ryan White Dies of AIDS at 18; His Struggle Helped Pierce Myths.

From that obituary:

After seeing a person like Ryan White – such a fine and loving and gentle person – it was hard for people to justify discrimination against people who suffer from this terrible disease,” said Thomas Brandt, the spokesman for the National Commission on AIDS.

Keith Haring died the same year from the disease, unable to “pierce myths.” Apparently, none of the 120,453 U.S. lives that had been lost to the disease up to that point were fine, loving, or gentle.

(And before anyone writes me a note about how Ryan White’s death was tragic, my point isn’t that his death wasn’t tragic, it’s that all the deaths were and are tragic.)

When Ryan White died, I was mere months away from the beginning of my own sexual life and the implication, vicious as it was, was not lost on me: if someone could be innocent, it only stood to reason that others could be guilty.

I was not like Ryan White. I was guilty.

“The poor homosexuals — they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.” ~Pat Buchanan

ap_ronald_reagan_jef_120615_wbI should probably insert a Ronald Reagan quote here, but St. Ronnie was, literally, deadly silent on the issue until May 31, 1987, at which time over 50,000 Americans had contracted the disease and nearly 41,000 had died from it. Let that sink in for a second: our president didn’t publicly mention a health crisis until it had claimed nearly forty-one thousand American lives.

What I experienced in those early years of the epidemic and through my young adulthood was its own special kind of horror – the horror of figuring out who I was against the backdrop of a country that seemed perfectly happy to let me die an excruciating death; whose stunning reaction to a disease ranged from a willful lack of understanding and compassion to outright glee at the annihilation of a generation of gay men. Men who deserved it. Men whose families wouldn’t visit them at the hospital. Men whose bodies were being thrown away in garbage bags.

But for the accident of the timing of my birth, these men were me.

Their pain, mine.

Their alienation, mine.

Their suffering,

the deadly moat of apathy that surrounded them,

their casually discarded lives,

their deaths.

Mine.

Mine.

Mine.

All mine.

Oddly though, I am thankful for the lessons I learned as the lava was hardening on my identity: Never forget who you are ~ never forget where you come from.

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4 Comments

  1. I will never forget the first Lesbian woman I held while she was dying of that mysterious disease in 1986. Nor the many men that I cared for in their final days of struggle with AIDS. They were ALL gentle, sweet and innocent..somewhat naive. Fortunately, I never contracted any STD’s while I tried to figure out who I was sexually and sometimes I wonder why. I am a lesbian who played with many sexually ambiguous or questioning boys, who and never thought twice about using condoms.

    Thank you for sharing your story. My heart aches for the thousands of men, women and children we lost to the deadly disease AIDS.

    I am even more concerned about the youth today who believe that they do not have to protect themselves against AIDS today.

    • Sometimes, when I write something, people tell me their stories in response. I am always moved, frequently to tears, by them. And I am reminded that the act of being human connects us all. Thank You for sharing Your story.

  2. I grew up an ostensibly heterosexual man in an implicitly conservative church environment. Attending two funerals of men who died from AIDS before my mid-twenties, while few compared to some people, was unexpected given my environment. The second man, a good friend who even so kept his HIV status a secret, I simply hugged upon learning from a mutual friend of his condition. Merrick, this man, was the person who humanised all the rancour from church and society about AIDS. I cannot begin to imagine the scourge AIDS became within the LGBTI/Queer community. I know this community became mine when I realised I am a transwoman. Merrick’s pain became my pain. A hug. That’s all that needed to be said.
    Julie.

  3. chillingly moving…
    thank you, Roger, for sharing this.
    “Never forget” applies here as well — anywhere a group of people were subjected to unspeakable suffering because of who they are. just like the scourge of drug addiction, not until AIDS hits white straight America does anyone sound the alarm. must have been brutal to watch this unfold as a young gay man.

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