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World AIDS Day, 9/11 and Miss Fire Island

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This past Sept. 11 marked the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was a Sunday, the media had been commemorating the event nonstop all week (well, much longer, really) and the air in New York City was somewhat sunny, breezy, cloudy, a little warm, a little cool -- changeable

After waking early that morning and watching a bit of the news coverage of the anniversary, I decided to head out to Fire Island. All of NYC was weightily in the throes of a citywide, breathy memorial service that day, alternately sincere and poignant or just full of pomp and bluster and bathos. I appreciated the intention. I was here in NYC that day; I understood. But by now, I wanted out of the fanfare. The little summer share I had with two friends in Fire Island's Cherry Grove was still ours for another week or so, no one was using it, so I headed out.

After a train, a van and a ferry ride I got to Cherry Grove by about noon, where I had our little bay-front apartment all to myself. The sky was bright, the breeze was crisp, and the island was very quiet. I sat by the water on our deck, then hung out sitting on the beach for a while, and though the sky turned increasingly gray, I didn't mind. Being alone on the chilly beach on a gorgeous, if emotionally charged, Sunday seemed right.

But after a bit, I got antsy (as I do). And as it was also the weekend of the annual Miss Fire Island drag queen pageant in Cherry Grove, I decided to head to the Ice Palace, the big ramshackle bar in the center of town, to enjoy the afternoon's shenanigans. The actual pageant had been held the night before (on Saturday), but Sunday afternoon was when all the winners and honorees and past queens would parade across the Ice Palace pool on a little floating makeshift bridge, where they'd perform, prance and just put on a big show to cap off the weekend.

I got there as the event was going full throttle. It wasn't packed, or a wild mob scene (the cool weather and lateness in the season kept that in check), but it was busy, upbeat and glittery. Drag queens swanned about, spectators cheered as their favorites hit the stage. I had a drink, found a great spot on the railing overlooking the pool and the show, and was just really happy to be there. If Sept. 11 was about commemorating some kind of grand American resilience, a bunch of hardworking Cherry Grove drag queens personify that for me better than anything. (Ice Palace = drag Ground Zero, perhaps?)

Anyway, at one point in the proceedings, after they'd announced and presented this year's Miss Fire Island winners, they kicked off a procession of all of the past Miss Fire Island winners, so that the former divas could stride across the stage and revel in their fabulousness once again.

The first two were from 1967 and 1969. And they were fabulous. Stately, elegant, foxy... They looked like former models in that woman-of-a certain-age/moneyed-matron sort of way. I was in heaven. Then came more... Queens who had ruled through the '70s. There was a lot of makeup, hair and hutzpah on display.

But as the announcer kept introducing the queens, suddenly we jumped from Miss Fire Island 1983 to Miss Fire Island 1998. Um, what? At first, I was like, "Are all those queens from the '80s and '90s really so busy they can't be here? Maybe Miss F.I. 1987 is now a retired professor in Denver?"

Then I got it: the missing queens were from the years dating from about 1983 to 1998. And they weren't missing. They were gone. Like thousands upon thousands of gay men, we lost them to AIDS. An entire generation of artists, performers, best friends, boyfriends, divas, queens and amazing, courageous, remarkable, invaluable people died. Suddenly, that brief chronological gap in the procession of drag queens across the the rickety Ice Palace stage was vast and devastating.

It's World AIDS Day again, and when you stop to think about the talent and warmth and beauty that was brutally lost to this disease, it's indefinably staggering. Luckily, since the late 1990s treatments have advanced, and most people with HIV that we know can manage and treat it, and live healthy, productive lives. But the losses we've all suffered due to an absent generation of amazing people are immeasurable.

I believe it was Larry Kramer who said (and I'll probably misquote this as I paraphrase) that the feeling of loss that New Yorkers felt immediately after 9/11, with all the tragic and heartbreaking posters of missing loved ones posted all over lower Manhattan, was akin to how he felt during the harshest days of the AIDS devastation in NYC. At both times, the city was a city of ghosts. But while New York lost nearly 3,000 fine souls on 9/11, Kramer and the rest of us lost thousands more to AIDS during those harshest years between 1983 and about 1998.

Anyway, back at the Ice Palace: the show went on (thank God, it's got to!). I finished my drink and cheered for the rest of the winners. I mugged with some in photos, and like I always do, I gazed at the queens in awe of their plucky bravery and mad talents. Wearing a wig, a dress and some heels ain't easy, people, but it's one of the ways we persevere.

So today on World AIDS Day, remember all those brave and talented people who are no longer with us. And keep fighting the good fight. I'm sure Miss Fire Island 1989 would want it that way.