On January 1, 1984, some friends and I went to hear Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel ring in the New Year at The Kitchen. My Orwellian welcome to adulthood. I owned a new car, had my first credit card and a recently acquired life insurance policy. I was 20 years old.
Later that year, I was offered my first kitchen set, a hand-me-down which would turn out to be identical to the one on The Golden Girls, from a larger-than-life and very bold queen, Mikey, whom I'd met in mid-June. It was early August when I got the call that he was dead. Mikey was the first person I knew who had AIDS. It took only seven weeks for him to go from being a finger-snapping diva on vacation, to needing a leave of absence from his job, to dying alone in his apartment. After some days of struggling with the physical and mental effects of toxic medication, he had been discovered by a friend. Back then, there was no dignity shown toward dying gay men. The NYPD conducted its crime scene investigation in full HazMat suits.
As New York City apartment life goes, arrangements were quickly made to clear out Mikey's. After being offered some of his furniture, I quietly called the hotline at Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), an organization then only two years old and still staffed largely by volunteers, to ask if it was "safe" to accept it.
Later that same month, I said different kinds of goodbyes as one by one my school pals headed off to college. It appeared that most of my world was looking to their futures. My personal reality was a frightening one, scripted in the context of a five-year plan: skip school and see France before I die.
The mid-80s to early 90s was a challenging time to grow with confidence into my identity. There were no gay role models in the public eye, and gay men just seemed to be carriers of sickness and suspicion. My socialization occurred in bars and clubs, where I would watch simple coughs develop into pneumonia. I noticed men's health change from weekend to weekend. I began to casually examine the guys I was hanging out with for wine-colored blotches on their skin -- Kaposi's sarcoma, the most visible mark of AIDS.
Sex became scary -- reading the obituaries in the newspaper even scarier. As I aged, I trained myself to hold on to relationships like life rafts. At least they floated, while others around me were sinking.
Last month, some friends and I went to see Terrence McNally's new play, Mothers and Sons on Broadway. 30 years later, the story of Cal and Andre portrayed in the play is not my story. I have not lost a long-term lover to AIDS, nor am I the happily married Will Ogden, raising a child with my husband. And unlike Tyne Daly's character, Katherine, and her son Andre, my mother and I learned a language of acceptance together long before she died. But the play resonated with me deeply. For me, what Terrence McNally presents in Mothers and Sons is a moving and provocative view of the balance of being both gay and how "family" plays within our world. Through his words, the actors in this play (Ms. Daly is joined by the remarkable Frederick Weller, Bobby Steggert and Grayson Taylor) have brought to the surface the anger, fear and pain of that time, all wrapped up on the stigma of disease. As I watched the performance, I again felt the helplessness of being abandoned by my government and the shame of being marginalized within society. I also re-experienced my own self-acceptance.
I traded my life insurance policy long ago for a desire to live and to be part of a community. The ACT UP scene of the 1990s was where I found my place and explored that urgency. Non-compliance became an accepted plan. ACT UP's Monday-night meetings were the place where my gay heroes and heroines were hiding in plain sight. And I find great comfort knowing that most of them are still fighting for what is necessary and right. To embrace the paradigm of gay marriage can be seen as a win-forward for civil rights. But the battles rage on.
I am part of a generation that witnessed genocide. The work around AIDS and acceptance is far from over. By continuing the fight, we honor the dead, we support all who live with HIV today, and we set an example for the brothers and sister -- and the mothers and sons -- that will follow in the footprints we leave behind. Ms. Daly's character Katherine opens and closes the play wearing a mink coat with seemingly as much comfort as I experience under the lead blanket in the dentist's chair. We cannot afford to ignore the lives of the characters in Mothers and Sons and allow AIDS to become a footnote in our history. This struggle is not over and it belongs to all of us.
Now nominated for the 2014 Tony® Award for Best Play, few plays on Broadway today speak as urgently to our times as "Mothers and Sons," the 20th Broadway production from legendary 4-time Tony® Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, now playing at the Golden Theatre. In the play, Katherine -- portrayed by Tony®- and Emmy-winning Tyne Daly in perhaps her most formidable role -- visits the former lover of her late son twenty years after his death, only to find him now married to another man and raising a small child. A funny, vibrant, and deeply moving look at one woman's journey to acknowledge how society has evolved -- and how she might, "Mothers and Sons" is certain to spark candid conversations about regret, acceptance, and the evolving definition of "family." Daly is joined by Broadway vet Frederick Weller ("Take Me Out"), Tony® nominee Bobby Steggert ("Ragtime"), and newcomer Grayson Taylor, under the direction of Tony® nominee Sheryl Kaller ("Next Fall"). For more information and tickets, visit www.mothersandsonsbroadway.com.