I would like to say that when I signed up for the Southern Maine AIDS 5k Run/Walk it was a noble, well thought out decision, but truthfully, it was more cavalier. Are we in town that weekend? Do you think the weather will have warmed up by May 3rd? Do we really want to get up early on a Saturday morning? As a fifty year old gay man I should have been more invested in the fight against HIV/AIDS. I had survived, after all, but only by chance.
In the summer of 1983 when I was nineteen, my aunt Sheila told me that in a previous life she was pregnant with me, but the ocean swept us away. We were sitting safely above sea level in the front seat of her white Mustang convertible on a warm July evening under the shadow of Pike's Peak, one of Colorado's fourteeners (mountains that soar above 14,000 feet.) In the parking lot of a gay bar called The Exit, I confided that I was most likely gay and she told me she most definitely was. She called our crossing of paths synchronicity.
"Be careful," Sheila said.
Those were the only two words of safe-sex instruction I received. Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) had just been renamed to AIDS and the cause was still widely unknown. That night, or perhaps in the wee hours of the next morning, I stumbled out of the bar with a man I had just met and under the starry Colorado sky, confirmed that like my aunt Sheila, I was most definitely gay.
On or about that same night, Peter Von Lehm called his mother and told her that he was finished with New York and that he and his partner Frank were saving their money so that they could move to San Diego. She was thrilled that he would be closer to her.
If you were to look down on our lives from 14,000 feet, you might have seen a brief similarity between us, mothers excited about a reunion and sons not being careful enough. But, at the end of the summer, I returned to North Carolina and the closet, my aunt Sheila went back to the bottle and Peter broke up with his partner, each of our lives veering off on different paths.
From the safety of my closet, I erased my history and watched the sad erasure of lives as the epidemic spread. If AIDS affected me, I thought it would only be through the absence of people I would never meet.
But, even in the closet I met them, including my manager and friend who contracted the virus in the 1990's and the childhood friend who died from AIDS. The disease didn't care where I hid. It also found Peter who died from a particularly violent strain in 1984.
His grandmother, Frannie Peabody at the age of eighty dedicated the rest of her life, eighteen years, to the needs of people with HIV/AIDS. This straight, little old lady wearing pearls and hair like a white puff of smoke, comforted a room of emotionally wrecked gay men with one hand, while stemming the tide of hopelessness that threatened to sweep them away with the other.
I suppose in some way my cavalier attitude about joining the Frannie Peabody 5k AIDS Walk/Run was masking something deeper; survivor guilt. Other than the fact that both Peter and I flirted with disaster in 1983, our lives and the lives of so many other victims were very different. I didn't emerge from the closet until seven years ago, when I thought the coast was clear. What right did I have to try and raise money for a disease and community that for so many years I had largely ignored?
When I put up my fundraising page on Facebook I tentatively set a goal and marveled as friends and family contributed, exceeding my goal four times over. There were people who would support me, some of them I had never met in person. It struck me that this is what Frannie Peabody did and what her legacy, the Frannie Peabody Center continues to do today. For everyone who has someone in their life who will be there to support them, there are so many more who need and rely upon others they have never met.
For so much of my life I spent my time running away from something. On May 3rd, I will run next to the ocean my aunt was so convinced swept us away, for something. You can call it chance, but she would have called it synchronicity.
To contribute visit The Southern Maine AIDS Walk page
To view all of the events, visit the Events Central page.
William Dameron's personal blog is The Authentic Life