The last episode of Jonas Gardell's Swedish drama, Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves, aired on BBC 4 on Monday night. Perhaps the most brutal part of this tale of love and loss among Stockholm's gay community during the early years of the AIDS crisis is the sad duplicity of the mother of one of the main characters, Rasmus, who distracts her son's lover, Benjamin, so that he will not be present in the hospital room when Rasmus dies. To compound this, the father, backed up by the mother, forbids Benjamin from attending Rasmus' funeral because people would "wonder why he was there." It's a scene worthy of Strindberg. The heart-piercing cruelty of it is drawn out by the fact that they had seemed so accepting, so tender even -- unlike Benjamin's own Jehovah's-witness parents who in an earlier episode organized a mock funeral for him when he told them he was gay.
It's the betrayals by family and friends, the everyday cruelties which seem almost more painful than the dreadful cruelty of HIV/AIDS itself. And these cruelties are still with us, for the events of 20 years ago told by Gardell are mirrored today in Africa and Asia. An article published recently by a doctor working in Kenya describes the slow, painful death of a 17-year-old gay man from AIDS-related complications. The account has its parallels in Benjamin's description of how AIDS took hold of the young Rasmus' body, but aside from the brutality inflicted by this most voracious of diseases are the humiliations of rejection and shame which mean that communities still will not support their own and families turn away or fall silent through fear, embarrassment and hatred. Privately the same doctor has written of a young gay Sudanese man diagnosed with HIV who took rat poison after being rejected by his parents. He wrote a note: "Mum, Dad, I love you. I am sorry. Maybe I can be happy if God wants me." With HIV/AIDS we must persecute the sick twice over it seems: Once for being sick and once again for being gay.
These were and are people who should have been the vital future; who should have been me and you today; who should be living and loving their youth. Earlier on Monday evening before Don't Ever Wipe Tears aired I had been to a Swedish celebration of Christmas during which young men and women, dressed in white and carrying candles, sang in celebration of Saint Lucy, whose feast day, part of the Christmas festival across Scandinavia, used to be the Winter Solstice, the shortest day. Candles were everywhere, for Lucy's name means light and in the darkness of a Scandinavian winter light is a precious thing. Someone present described how in the north, once the snows had come, there was a lightness about the blanket of white everywhere even in the darkest time.
But what struck me wasn't just the candle-lit charm of it, the lovely harmony of singing, but that it was possible to see this festival of light as representing something hopeful that has emerged from past; the young men in particular were so like the young men in Don't Ever Wipe Tears, the same look, the same aspirations, perhaps even the same mournfulness, which was there in the traditional songs they sang and in the inevitable association of youthful sacrifice their white garments, their flickering candles, Saint Lucy herself represent.
In his 20-year-old narrative, Benjamin describes the AIDS epidemic as a war being fought in peace time, and as with all wars it's the young who die: "[T]he very people who loved the most, who were possessed by love -- they were the ones taken by the frost," he says. Throughout much of the Global North we have gained our rights from this tragedy of HIV/AIDS, earned them, you might say, though at bitter cost. In that long night the pale blanket that had fallen lit our way.
There's a modern postscript to Gardell's drama: Benjamin visits Rasmus' grave for the first time and learns that a year after Rasmus died his father also died, perhaps of remorse and his mother was condemned to live on another 20 lonely years. The ending was almost karmic, whereby both parents suffered for their cruelty towards the lovers, for we are all candles in a dark night, together providing great illumination, but alone fragile and too easily snuffed out by winter winds.