When I was growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the '90s, the AIDS Walk route swung by my house. I remember hearing the hoots and cries of scantily clad men in leather and seeing very, very androgynous-looking people, hard to place for my young mind, and whatever curiosity I felt was stamped out by that desperately firm pact I had made with myself: to never turn out like them. On one particular occasion this was reflected back at me all too clearly. As my father and I were on our way out on that May Sunday in question, several topless, heavier, bald men in round, John-Lennon-style sunglasses and pleated skirts were gyrating on a float, cheering and hollering, and my father's stiff upper lip confirmed that these were not desirable folks. Granted, it may have been Pride; I was probably no older than 14 at the time, so my memory is hazy. But I wasn't too young to know that I was going to have to be particularly careful to avoid any contact with or influence from these people, so as to not "turn out like them."
For me, growing up gay where and when I did was steeped in one thing: AIDS. The epidemic had already hit its considerable stride by the early '90s, and when it was (finally) time for everybody to start talking about it in the mainstream, about the problem and what we should do about it, I was becoming increasingly desperate in my struggle to resist the truth about myself. And everything I heard about the disease seemed to involve being gay, and everything about being gay somehow connected to the disease. The fact that the Pride parade and the AIDS Walk melded in my mind and made me equally uncomfortable was symbolic of this. I found it very upsetting that there was even an organization called "Gay Men's Health Crisis." I thought to myself, terrified, "Is that a crisis all gay men are affected by?" The arts, my primary focus from as early as I could remember, were not immune to this sudden wash in the topic: AIDS afflicted seemingly everyone in Rent, films like And the Band Played On, and especially Tom Hanks' gaunt and haunted Andrew Beckett, bathed in red light, listening to Maria Callas in Philadelphia. I'm sure my exposure didn't end there: While I was in high school, my father had a gay, HIV-positive client, Mr. Harvey, who later died, and although I've heard only extremely tangential references to him (including one of the most hurtful things my father ever said to me, about ending up like him), I understood that he was somewhat of a close friend. It all equaled one thing to my panicked and extremely myopic, closeted, teenage mind: Being gay would surely be a death sentence, on a familial, social, and physical level.
And I saw those men in the leather suspenders, round glasses, and pleated skirts bathed in the same light as Tom Hanks, a blood red that meant danger and death. I would never, could never, turn out like them.
To majorly synopsize what followed: I came out just as soon as I got to college and realized that life does in fact continue, and to prove to myself just how little of a hold any of my past had on me, I ran away to Europe after graduating, for a number of years. Being gay for me needed to be about life, about joy, about "getting better." And in my mad rush to hold onto that, much of my past stayed dismissed, along with many of the connotations and associations I had made, which remained untouched and in place.
* * * * *
On the morning of Sunday, May 20, on my way to yoga class, I took my customary shortcut along the Northern Loop of Central Park and saw that it was crammed with AIDS Walkers. I knew it was coming and was even invited to march along with several different organizations, but, like years prior, I patently ignored them all. Any time the AIDS Walk came up, I would start to editorialize (as above) about how it represented a time in my life when I was coming into my own but was confronted with all these equations and connections, and how I would just as soon stay away from all that as a symbol of my commitment to remaining positive and "life-affirming."
While on my phone, I weaved through the crowds in a mad dash to get to class on time. But then I realized two incredibly obvious (and long overdue) things. First off, the walkers I had just dodged and cut through were far from the bald men dancing in skirts. Like the disease it so vocally is trying to cure, the Walk is no longer (and never really was) an exclusively gay entity. There were families marching, minorities, couples both gay and straight -- just lots and lots of people. This is completely obvious and even redundant information for most, but I needed a bit of a reeducation for myself. I needed to see this, because as a gay man, I was still looking at this thing, this Walk, from a place of distance, a place of "this is not me," a place of shame.
And that brings me to the second thing I realized, something slightly less obvious to my sometimes overcooked, highly self-involved brain: The AIDS Walk is not about me. Whatever it represented for me when I was younger was simply the feelings of a scared kid, feelings I've clung to as a way of continuing to build distance between where I am and true, ultimate self-acceptance. Staying in a place of resistance, a place of looking away from the AIDS Walk, particularly, was a way of staying in exactly the same terrified place I was when I was 14.
Next year, I plan on marching in the AIDS Walk, not because I have a particular connection to the disease, not because this cause is the one I consider to be most pressing in my heart of hearts, but because it's important to let go of the fears you get so used to, the fears that become comfortable in how paralyzing they are. Yes, my 14-year-old self would cry with defeat, but it's important to be who you're supposed to be now, and not who you wished you'd become then.
And if I see any bald men in skirts, I'll be sure to dance with one.