2014 comes with a brightly lit candle planted in a cherry on top of a delicious sundae: I am alive and well after almost dying from AIDS in 1994.
In a recent a dialogue for Four Two Nine magazine, my nephew, David Levithan, (best-selling author of 16 novels including Every Day, Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist [with Rachel Cohn] and Two Boys Kissing), and I realized that we share the cultural and spiritual DNA of my father, Lou, his grandfather, in that we tend to tell the upside of the story. A decade ago, his Boy Meets Boy was the first happy, gay young adult book to come out. I've been facilitating groups and workshops on resilience and thriving after serious illness for more than two decades. I live proudly as an AIDS elder. I celebrate our lineage by celebrating being alive and in the game.
To quote David from the Four Two Nine piece: "Happiness is actually the more radical experience to share..."
When I began a column, "The New Sixty" almost three years ago for Advocate.com, I was immediately attacked for being too happy. I was told that a 60-year-old, HIV-positive gay man could not be embracing new avenues of expression, enjoying his health, let alone be having a fulfilling romantic/sex life. Certain activists who are not as content seemed to resent my well-being. Just as I must acknowledge the challenges and despair of others, it seems fair that good fortune and an upbeat attitude also be acknowledged and honored.
Larry Kramer, one of my heroes in AIDS activism, actually wrote in to say:
Most gay men, I more and more believe, don't have much sex at all, or any, certainly not enough, but live lives, as Thoreau said, "of quiet desperation."... I think it is impossible for any gay man to have sex today without the sword of Damocles hanging over their head.
Obviously, I disagree with Larry on this. Of course it is true for some. It is not true for many, and I want it not to be true for more of us. I have ample evidence of a wide range of experiences, both from working in the field as a psychotherapist and as an activist. Currently, I host monthly salons as the sexual ethicist to encourage shame-busting and the open discussion of healthy sexuality.
I have had 20 years of full out living since I was officially diagnosed with AIDS in 1994 -- after testing positive for HIV in 1984. I'm 30 years in and having a remarkably good time. Some of my brothers and sisters are not so fortunate. There is, however, a significant cohort of healthy survivors who have not been felled, physically, psychologically and spiritually by the AIDS journey. I am a third of the way into writing The Happy AIDS Memior because I know that there are a lot of tough stories to be told while I offer another significant perspective on the journey.
I agree with many master teachers and poets who say that our experience of life is shaped by our perception. The world is more often than not a reflection of our beliefs and history. As a survivor of a decimated generation, I hold history and have both the obligation and the privilege of passing it on to my younger brothers and sisters. That I choose to pass on a hopeful vision filled with joy and possibility does not mean that I have not also lived through loss and challenges. I agree with activist Sally Fisher that "the quality of life is not determined by the circumstances" but by how we respond to them, by how we hold them and by how we learn from them.
I have learned to savor the joy of being alive in the 21st century. I am pledged to service and pleasure -- and pleasure through service. I am committed to radical happiness.