After watching The Normal Heart on HBO Sunday night, words once spoken by a former boyfriend, the second love of my life, reverberated in my mind. "I'll never date another guy that isn't HIV positive," he had said.
It was after our breakup, he was sitting across from me in a diner booth. His words were not spoken with malice, but in consideration. He was someone I cared about, a man I continue to care about. I'll never forget the evening, early in our relationship, his sitting on my sofa and expressing his positive status. He was inconsolable, frightened and angry. He'd been living with HIV for less than 10 years. That person he'd loved long ago, before me, had not been honest with him. This former boyfriend of mine, in his honesty, felt he could not take the chance and potentially do to me what had been done to him. "I couldn't live with myself if that happened," he said.
At the height of our relationship, he was healthy, active, physically fit, wholly proactive in terms of watching his "numbers," and regimented in taking his meds twice a day -- the alarm on his wristwatch was set at 7:00 a.m. and again at 7:00 p.m. 13 years ago he was a gorgeous 20-something young man. Nothing has changed. Today he is a gorgeous 40-something man, both inside and out. He's been living with HIV for about 20 years now. He has a long-time partner and he is loved. Perhaps my former boyfriend is lucky; his battle with HIV began during the 1990s. It is terrifying to think, had he been diagnosed in the 1980s, I might never have had the opportunity to love him.
While watching The Normal Heart I couldn't help but consider my friends and former lover living with HIV. And those who've passed because of it. I remember well the 1980s AIDS panic, the national and local fear. I was a teenager then. New York City and other major municipalities throughout the United States seemed a world away from my rural southern Indiana hometown. But the terror was there, nothing compared to those in the throes of the epidemic depicted in The Normal Heart, but terror nonetheless for gay teens like me.
The AIDS crisis colored my world as I grew into a young man and struggled to accept my sexual orientation. It's why the bullshit statement "choosing to live the gay lifestyle" often sends me into a zealous rant. I was a frightened 24 year old when I came out to my parents in 1993. Why would I "choose" a life seemingly riddled with disease and death?
Initially the majority of AIDS news, and later HIV information, at least in my experience, was received from the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker and other television evangelists in addition to rhetoric from local pulpits. News outlets and media coverage skewed "facts" with either a political or religious slant. In truth, early on, there were no facts aside from the total number of deaths to date. It was the era of President Reagan and the Moral Majority. Even Sebastian Bach, front man for Skid Row, was photographed wearing a t-shirt stating, AIDS Kills Fags Dead.
Early in the 1990s, before I came out, the biggest impact on me regarding HIV and AIDS was a young gay man who frequented my family's buffet restaurant. I was in my early twenties and managing the business. The only gays I knew were local hairdressers; he was one. I'd heard rumors that this particular guy had AIDS. At the time there wasn't a distinction, at least in rural Indiana, between being HIV positive and AIDS; it was one and the same. He'd often eat a late lunch in the restaurant with three other male hairdressers -- in my rural hometown hairstylists were hairdressers -- each of whom were also rumored to be gay. The guys enjoyed our restaurant's Thursday menu of turkey, dressing and noodles.
For the most part, the guys were regulars. Then all of a sudden, they stopped coming in. Weeks passed. No gay hairdressers. I had wanted to introduce myself, get to know them, ask questions, but I was fearful. What would the other customers think about me if I sat talking with a table of hairdressers? Gay by proximity? I couldn't allow myself, I thought at the time, to be associated with men rumored to be queer and have AIDS. Our restaurant's predominately Christian clientele would freak out! I was certain the church folk would stop eating in our restaurant if they discovered I, the owner's son, was gay too. Then what would my family do?
One Sunday morning, as I worked through my opening of the restaurant routine, I stepped inside the front entrance, a glass vestibule, to retrieve the Sunday editions of the Vincennes Sun Commercial, our local newspaper, to be sold at our cashier's counter. It was a large, heavy stack of newspapers bundled with yellow strapping. I lifted the bale from the floor and saw the headline; it was dramatic. I don't recall each word but in my recollection it proclaimed, AIDS Hits Vincennes! And there below it was the ill-framed profile of the same young gay man, the hairdresser who ate noodles in our restaurant on Thursdays. He had admitted himself to the Damien Center in Indianapolis, "a coordinated care clinic providing specialty case management for people infected with HIV."
The Sun Commercial had interviewed him. It was an extensive piece and the newspaper did a lousy job in its attempt to mask his identity, a profile shot of the young man sitting on the edge of his clinic bed near a window. I knew if I recognized him there on the front page everyone else in town would too. It was 1992. I couldn't imagine the courage it must have taken to participate in the interview or the potential for blowback. It didn't take long before I began to hear repugnant remarks and bigoted opinions about the front-page interview from good, God-fearing "Christian" customers eating Sunday dinner in my family's restaurant. Their chatter cemented my decision to stay in the closet. I did so for another year until one oppressive August night, a Thursday, when I couldn't stay in it a moment longer.
I suppose one thing changed the trajectory of my experience as a young gay man after coming out to my family. Early on, I met the first love of my life, he happened to be HIV negative. So was I. Our relationship over the course of several years was an on again, off again, incredibly passionate affair, and he was the guy with whom I was most intimate. I never went full throttle, so to speak, with the other guys I met between breakups and reunions with my first love. Monogamy to me during my 20s was not innate; I was the proverbial kid in a candy store. My pursuit of other guys while trying to maintain a relationship with the one I loved was selfish and disrespectful. As I matured, the realization that I could have put my first love at risk for HIV infection because of my promiscuity was terrifying. Eventually, my first love gave up on me and rightfully so. It took his leaving to learn my lesson. I suppose I've tried to make amends ever since.
After The Normal Heart was over -- I watched it with my 65-year-old mother -- she and I talked about the story's effect. Its impact. I had been sipping a glass of pinot grigio during the movie and afterwards, as I walked into the kitchen to place my empty wine glass in the sink, I felt the upsurge of emotion. It rocketed from my lower abdomen through my chest and lodged for a moment in my throat. I couldn't contain it. I began sobbing, trying my best to keep silent so my mother wouldn't hear or be startled. At one point, I was forced to grab hold of the kitchen counter to balance myself. It seemed I was grieving for those friends I had loved and lost due to HIV related illness or AIDS; I was weeping for my former lover and other HIV positive friends who've suffered and continue to fight their private battles unbeknownst to many around them; I was reflecting on my own HIV negative status, as crazy as it may sound, and the conceivable harm my actions could have inflicted upon my first love. How is it I had not been infected? I thought.
To suggest I was perhaps experiencing survivor's remorse is absurd, self-centered and patronizing. The aching I experienced in the kitchen that Sunday night was in part, I believe, compassion for those I love and for those like the characters in The Normal Heart who fought and tried their damnedest to survive insurmountable odds. I could have been any one of them had I come out in 1983 instead of 1993.
It is condescending and selfish to say I am lucky; it is disrespectful to those living with HIV and a cold-hearted response regarding those who've lost their battle. I don't know why I'm HIV negative while my friends and a few former lovers are not. I simply don't know. The Normal Heart doesn't answer the kinds of questions I'm asking. It does however, for me, reveal the randomness, the chance of life. Perhaps my chance inhabited a particular geography and decade. Maybe that is the only answer.