Many of us during this week that will feature two of the most important religious holidays of the year -- Easter and Passover -- will spend time with our people, family and friends whose genetic and social connections to us help us to know who we are, where we belong, that we matter.
In the nearly eight years since I moved from my longtime home in Washington, D.C., back to eastern Connecticut, where I grew up, I've thought a lot about what it means to be connected to people and places -- and to history.
There's a lot of history around me here in the largely rural "Quiet Corner" of the state. Across the stone wall from my community garden plot -- in the backyard of the home of Samuel Huntington, one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence -- are gravestones marking the final resting places of men who fought in the Revolutionary War. As I see it, this is sacred ground. Working my bit of ground here, growing vegetables from its soil, nourishes my body -- and my sense of being connected to history itself.
As with the 300-year-old colonial homesteads and farms throughout the region -- many of them still operated by the same families that operated them during those colonial times -- this connection fills me with a sense of belonging to generations of courageous, resilient people, New Englanders, Yankees.
Then there's my own family's history. I recently attended the funeral of my 93-year-old great aunt Jessie, one of the last two of my paternal grandfather's remaining five sisters. He was the oldest of seven. His wife, my father's mother, gave me his gold ID bracelet for my 15th birthday -- more than four decades ago. I wear it all the time, proudly showing anyone interested the Army serial number on the underside of John Andriote's bracelet. Yes, we even have the same name. Well, my middle name was his father's, my great-grandfather's -- and my father's -- first name.
During the many years I lived in D.C., and other cities where I was the only Andriote I ever met, I never ran into someone in the grocery store who said, "You look just like your grandfather." I hadn't yet had a conversation with a 90-something-year-old man who, as a 1-year-old, sailed from Greece aboard the same ship as my great-grandparents, the original immigrants who brought my father's family to America. No one had ever said, "Your great-grandparents would be proud of you, the writer."
I hadn't yet stood at their graves and thanked them for having the courage to leave their familiar villages to create a new life in a strange new land -- for bequeathing to me their courage and resilience that has enabled me to embrace my "difference" as a gay man and to live well with HIV for nearly 10 years in the face of the continuing ignorance and stigma that I experience mainly from other gay men.
On April 22, I am going to give a talk about "Celebrating Gay America's Heroic Legacy in the AIDS Plague" at Eastern Connecticut State University, where I taught two communication classes last fall. It's part of a series at the university dedicated to celebrating cultural diversity. My message will be a version of what I'm writing here: That we can find courage, hope, resilience and strength by claiming for ourselves the legacy of those who have gone before us.
I plan to point out that the day after my talk, April 23, will mark the twenty-first anniversary of the death from AIDS of one of Gay America's great heroes, William. A. 'Bill' Bailey. Bill was the man who first encouraged me, way back in 1985, to apply my skills as a journalist to report on the impact of AIDS on gay Americans. We were lovers when Bill tested HIV-positive in 1986, during those dark years when the diagnosis was a sure death sentence because there was no effective treatment.
I watched in awe as Bill rose above his own fear to transform himself into a respected advocate in Washington, lobbying Congress for funding to support HIV prevention. When he died in 1994, Bill was called "The father of the HIV prevention lobby in Washington." As his own life came to a close at 34 years old, Bill fought valiantly so others -- particularly other gay men -- would not experience what he did.
LGBT America has an exceptional legacy bequeathed to us by extraordinarily brave and brilliant people like Bill Bailey. These men and women challenged the status quo, declared it unacceptable to make us scapegoats and second-class citizens in our own country. They put their talent, time and treasure where their mouths are, working hard to translate their activism into public policy and social change.
Refusing to be reduced to their sexuality, HIV status and others' stereotypes, claiming the full measure of their humanity, our heroes have opened for us the space we need to live heroically, too.
Our people have left us a powerful, inspiring legacy. But it's up to each of us to claim it for ourselves, to own it and live it. What better time to do that than as we mark the passing over of death and the resurrection -- and triumph -- of life itself?
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