We didn't know what we were dealing with. But we knew the effects were pain and suffering, followed by a horrible death. The "experts" were clueless as to why all our friends and lovers were dying. Elected officials, almost as befuddled and frightened as we were, opted for denial or silent non-intervention. As we pushed our way through the tsunami of loss that overwhelmed us, we saw the sick denied the right to board commercial airlines. Ambulances refused to transport severely ill patients to emergency rooms. Funeral homes refused bodies. We were, literally, the untouchables.
In places like San Francisco and New York, a great cloud of suffering descended on our community, challenging us to choose life or accept the opposite. Yet there was no formula for success, little hope, and no guidance. So this is what we did.
We looked inward. We created our own churches to nurture our damaged souls. We relied on the help of those rare individuals whose compassion transcended their fears. We saw a frightening wasting syndrome reduce vibrant young men to shadows of their former selves, and we began to eat. We embraced obesity because we thought the fat could not get sick. We acted out and acted up. We organized. We propelled ourselves into agitprop activism on the streets of our cities and the steps of our nation's capitols.
We attended memorial services every week until we could no longer carry the emotional burden of showing up. We withdrew from life. We shut down emotionally. We stayed in relationships that weren't working because what was out there terrified us. We moved to other cities to start over in places that might offer better survival odds. Or we went someplace where we were not known, to die alone and relieve the burden we had become to our friends. Sometimes we went home to die... if our family would accept us. Some of us stayed where we were, remaining members of a particular tribe: men who put everything familiar behind them to create a new urban gay life. In spite of the odds, we would not undo that choice.
We helped each other because there was no one else. We sought legal counsel to prepare for the looming inevitable. We ran errands, bought groceries, cooked meals, administered IVs, changed bedpans, and took turns sitting bedside. Women, particularly lesbians, stepped up to be caretakers and advocates when we could not help ourselves. We took ineffective or experimental drugs that killed us faster than the illness would have. Or we turned away from the well-intended advice of a medical community that could only treat symptoms. Some of us journeyed to countries like Mexico or France to pursue alternative medical treatments that did not work.
One by one, we deleted the phone numbers of friends from telephone books and speed-dial settings because they no longer connected us to the living. When a sentence began, "Did you hear about...," our spines stiffened as we awaited the saddest punch line in our world. We learned that gallows humor was better than no humor at all. We endlessly reinvented our sex lives without ever becoming entirely comfortable with what we were doing, or why. We responded to requests from loved ones that chilled our souls.
At the insistence of terminally ill friends, we begged, borrowed, or stole opiates and sedatives, hoarding them until we had accumulated enough for a lethal dose. Sometimes it worked. When it didn't, we picked up the pillow on the bed. We allowed ourselves to become on-call murderers; we killed out of kindness and kept the secret amongst ourselves. Coroners did not look closely at our cases. For many, many years we just put one foot in front of the other and tried not to look back. We persevered. We reached for moments of joy and happiness when they broke through the clouds and held them as long as we could.
We gathered the shards and splinters of our broken lives and tried to assemble a mosaic for living, a pattern for survival. Miraculously, a few of us who have walked this path since 1981 are still here to talk about it. But we do not talk. It is painful for us, and no one wants to hear these stories anyway. They are too hard. We are survivors of a holocaust that still casts a shadow over our lives. In silence, we now carry that shadow with us into old age. It does not go away.
There is more optimism these days, and more knowledge. There is an international effort to assist those who are ill or at risk. But on this day I reach out to my fellow soldiers who fought the good fight beside me, in whatever manner they could. If we were not an old soul when we began this journey, we surely became one along the way. I thank you for the way you carried yourselves, how you rose to the occasion. As long as we have memory, neither you nor I will ever forget what we did.
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