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The Spectre of AIDS – Coming of Age in the 80’s

During the summer I was on something of a reading binge when it came to books that discussed queer topics. I’ve mentioned some or maybe all of them in my blog before, but I read three that in particular I found meaningful.

  • The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs, Ph.D.
  • Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives by Walt Odets, Ph.D.
  • Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette

Each was beneficial in its own way helping me understand my experience in general and the larger picture of growing up gay in a society that actively discouraged it. But one of the things that stood out for me was the amount of tears I shed in each book. Specifically tears anytime the subject turned to AIDS deaths. In the case of the first two books both of the authors lived through the AIDS years but were very much in the heart of the age group that lost so many to the disease. In the case of Paul Monette, I knew before starting the book that he had died of AIDS in 1995 only a few years after the book was published. And although the book was focused on his experience growing up and coming out, in the narrative he mentions losing friends and partners and his own impending death. He wrote other books including one about losing the love of his life that I want to read but haven’t managed to pluck up the courage yet. After those three books I moved on to lighter fare for the time being.

But I was curious, why so many tears every time there was a story about an AIDS related death? As far as I know I have never directly known anyone who died from AIDS. If there’s any benefit at all to being confused and closeted during that time it was I was sheltered from being part of the community at its zenith. It was puzzling because it seemed to hit me worse than reading about other deaths. I mean, I find death in general a sad subject but I generally don’t find myself literally sobbing every time I read about a death. But I did so many times in those books.

In a very roundabout way that led me to following the AIDS Memorial page on Facebook and Instagram. I didn’t purposefully seek it out but when I found it. I stopped and read the stories there. Yes, those memories from people of lost loves, family, and friends are shattering to read at times. But it also felt sort of cathartic. It was sort of similar to getting on a plane when you’re afraid of flying. Reading those stories doesn’t become less moving or sad for that matter but it becomes less fearful.

And in a weird bit of synchronicity, one of those posts reminded me of a memory from my early adult life. I was in college when the Real World first started airing on MTV. At that point, reality TV didn’t really exist. It seemed so novel and new and the castmates were around my age and appearing on a TV channel that revolved around music which I loved. So, I ended up watching the first few seasons. I’m not sure exactly when I dropped out of watching but I vividly remember the third season in San Francisco. Some of you will know where this is heading.

In the 3rd season of Real World we were introduced to Pedro Zamora, an AIDS activist and educator who died the day after the last episode of season 3 aired. Reading Pedro’s story again after all these years and most of all seeing the photos of him taken near the end in the hospital just brought that long ago sadness rushing back. I may not have ever known anyone directly who died of AIDS but I remember getting to know Pedro through the TV. It felt in a strange way like losing someone I had only just met. And it felt like on some level I had unlocked the source of those tears. And honestly maybe some of the fear I felt.

The topic of the impact of AIDS on the various generations is actually something that Walt Odets covers in a good bit of detail in his book. He divides gay men into three groups. The older group experienced life before AIDS. The Middle group who came of age after the pandemic was in motion. And the younger group who grew up in the years after there were viable treatments and prophylactic medications. My birth year puts me right on the edge of the older and middle groups but almost all of my classmates would be in the middle group so to me that feels more correct. This is how Dr. Odets describes the middle group men.

“They were the first gay men with no adult life experience before AIDS. For them, the gay identity seamlessly included fatal infection and disease.”

“This early life experience understandably inhibited the coming out of many middle-group men — some still have not come out — and many resisted any internal or external identification with a group that was now so clearly a multifaceted pariah in American society.”

Out Of The Shadows – Chapter 3 – Our Tripartite Communities Today

Those are just a couple of quotes from that chapter that I highlighted when I read it last summer. I don’t recall consciously connecting being gay with death but I’m sure on some level I had to have. I’m not sure when I’d have first heard of the disease but it was first reported in 1981, and I would have been 9 years old at the time. On one hand my parents weren’t the type who tossed out things like the “F Slur” but they also just didn’t talk about sex so I can’t imagine my introduction was anywhere besides the media of the day. I know there were shows of my early childhood that included gay storylines. For instance I vividly remember watching Maude with my parents as a small child.

I do vaguely remember seeing this episode in 1977 but at not quite six years old, I don’t think I entirely followed the bouncing ball of what being gay meant or why Arthur disapproved of gay men having the audacity of existing.

So it’s possible I had heard of gay people before the first reports of what would become known as AIDS. But I still think by the time the concept of being gay had any real meaning to me it was intertwined with the AIDS crisis.

Because I didn’t have personal experience with AIDS, I had largely discounted what effect it might have had on my coming of age and coming out. Now I realize that it probably impacted me more than I realized.

In fact, I found it interesting when recently binging the Netflix series Sex Education, I heard one of the gay characters, Anwar, address AIDS. Specifically he had gone to a sexual health clinic for what turned out to be an allergic reaction. When the nurse asks him if he uses a condom when he has sex he tells her.

“Every film I’ve seen with a gay person ends with them having sex and dying of AIDS. I don’t want to die. So, yeah, I always use a condom.”

Sex Education – Season 3 – Episode 4 – Spoken by Anwar

I was a little surprised that’s still a concern for young people. Not that AIDS has gone away but that the representation they would see in media still ties being gay with dying of AIDS. Regardless it pinged my ears because that was definitely my experience by the time I reached adolescence and early adulthood. I’m not sure that I thought it was inevitable but I realize if nothing else I connected it as a possibility.

Connecting the Dots

Ultimately I’ll be the first to admit there’s some conjecture here. I definitely think my memory of Pedro’s death is somehow connected to the sadness I experienced when reading about AIDS deaths. And I think AIDS played more of a part than I ever realized in my years of denial. However, I also suspect on another level I feel some guilt at having survived when others around my age died living with a brave authenticity I lacked. Not that my being visible would have prevented their deaths but it still feels off-putting.

Maybe some clearer memory might come to me at some point but absent that I just have general feelings that seem to connect the right dots.

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