And it gave a name to a nameless anger I’ve reserved for awhile.
“The poor homosexuals — they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution.” Pat Buchanan, 1983.
I hadn’t expected much when I applied for Brian Malloy’s free ten-week course. There wasn’t much to expect aside from the title: Writing the AIDS Generation. Yeah, if there was any generation I’d feel alienated from, it would have to be this one. What truly dismantled the notions I conceived before walking into that meeting room in the Quatrefoil Library, however, is something that has stuck with me, and probably will stick with me until I die. I’ve read and seen depictions of the AIDS plague and the volatile protests, but I never imagined sitting in a room full of people who more or less did just that. It seems my inner fury, directed at a government that should have helped these people, came to a boiling point that first class.
That said, my anger intensified following a couple more of these sessions.
It started with my first prompt. My first prompt was to make two lists, both revolving around the first half of 1981. The first list asked what you were doing, where you were living, what job you had, what school you attended, where was your partner/spouse, etc. The second list asked what global issues, government crises and dilemmas, trends, groundbreaking achievements in all professional fields, you thought would occupy the minds of the American people. A generation, if you will. As I prepared my list, I found a startling gap between what I imagined my mother was experiencing in her personal life and the general discourse that is 1981. It seems rational that my mom would be occupied with the birth of my older sister more than Bobby Sands’ tragic hunger strike. Fitting into a new church congregation over Secretary-of-State Alexander Haig’s ambiguous assertions of “being in control”. Concerning over my dad leaving for duty than Princess Diana’s royal wedding gown. So much can happen in one year. How in the world would my parents, any of my friends, give a passing thought to a marginalized community on the precipice of a horrific plague?
Unless one of their loved ones was afflicted?
I was reminded how easy it is to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden while simultaneously turning a blind eye to them when action was pertinent. I can call myself a feminist, part of the Black Lives Matter movement, an ally for the trans community, a concerned citizen of the environment, issues that need consideration and affirmative action, yet when it’s time to stand up and take said action, I remain rooted to the spot, unwavering, worried about my own financial strife or whether to buy more almond milk.
How many people in 1981 had the opportunity to do the right thing and help a suffering community but chose to stay in the comfort of their homes? Who was guilty of shrugging off the demand, making passive-aggressive comments about how those “fags and dykes” deserved to die? How could an administration drag their heels and wait FOUR YEARS until they acknowledged there was a slight chance of a plague at hand?
For my money’s worth, to borrow from a potentially-queer poet, perhaps “all are punished.”
In one night, I met at least ten people who were afflicted with AIDS, who lost a lover, a friend, a family member, to AIDS, who had to feed, dress, and nurse countless men and women who couldn’t rely on families due to disowning, who attended too many funerals before reaching the age of 30, who founded and co-founded agencies and organizations to represent the GSM community, doing all they could to preserve and reclaim a humanity that was unjustly revoked from them. They’ve had to fight for themselves, make themselves known to a nation that wanted them to remain quiet and pray. If they die, oh well, they probably weren’t praying hard enough or God decided to allow them to die as punishment for their lifestyle.
It’s easy for me, for that matter, my generation, to disregard this horrid blotch on modern history as merely that: modern history, something affecting the GSM community in the ‘80s and ‘90s but not us. Thanks to better protease inhibitors, a term which no doubt few of my generation have a general knowledge of, PEP and PrEP, we don’t have to worry about that. The survivors can ease their way back into society and enjoy getting a second chance.
Which, from my classmates’ testimonies, is more or less what they did. No, more or less what they had to do.
The general consensus, from this group of survivors, was they had nothing else to do other than to live, that for nearly two decades, they expected the worst — hearing the dreaded prognoses, hearing about another friend falling victim, and coming to grips with their mortality earlier in life than necessary — and suddenly, they could live again. What else was there to do than to live their lives and bury the hurt, anger, frustration, the helplessness, all instigated by the vile indifference incurred by two former presidents and their administrations? And now, in early 2019, they challenged themselves to sift through their memories, relive the loss and pain they blocked for years. It was painful, sitting in that room, hearing these testimonies, men and women fighting back tears, choking on their words, biting their lips in pauses that even cut my heart. And in those moments, those gorgeous, heartbreaking glimpses of catharsis, I knew why I joined the course. I wanted to be someone to tell their stories, to remind my generation of an injustice that happened NOT TOO LONG AGO. Thirty years is not even a drop in the bucket. I want to be someone who looks at the guilty, the ones who breezed through those years without being touched by this pain, who did nothing when they should’ve done everything they could, and say, “I know who you are, and I’ll never forget what you did.” I want to preserve their legacies, channel my anger at a nation that ignored and continues to ignore this moral blotch on their conscience. I’ve noticed an uncomfortable condolence this generation has on the AIDS plague, that it’s in the past, and it’s better if we letting sleeping corpses lie and forget about it an in attempt to absolve guilt. I, however, imagine these sleeping corpses had stories to tell, and especially lives to live, and I want to speak with them. Not for them. Their corpses can speak for themselves. I suppose I just want to get my generation to listen to them. And if need be, I’ll tell their stories. Someone has to.
Perhaps we haven’t reached a time when our nation can examine this time period through an objective lens. Perhaps it’s too soon for those who were in charge to reflect on the hurt and destruction their indifference reaped. I don’t know. I’m not a historian or a psychiatrist. I’m just an angry gay writer who’s growing more frustrated at the “straight” default of society (I don’t know, Mr. Nick Robinson, a straight actor who, as far as I know, hasn’t contributed to any GSM causes after Love, Simon. Why don’t you tell me why straight is the default?). I’m growing more frustrated that in order to be a remarkable gay I have to be a marketable gay. I’m growing more frustrated at the fact heteronormative infrastructures refuse to be held accountable for their past discrimination and prejudice, that I’m a cool gay friend as long as I don’t say anything negative about the dominant heterosexual discourse.
If I haven’t made it clear yet, or if the title of this post has evaded the reader’s glance, I’m fucking angry. Sorry not sorry that I’m closing this post on a bitter note, especially since it’s Pride Weekend in the Twin Cities, but I can’t hide it. I’m fucking angry, and to those who object, particularly those who lived during the AIDS plague, don’t be surprised if I ask you, “Tens upon thousands have died from AIDS. Where were you?”