Tell the truth. After all these year, who among us believed that we would ever read those words? Has it finally happened?
This isn’t news of a deterrent, like PrEP, or news of a multi-pill cocktail or AZT or antivirals that lengthened life though only marginally improved the quality, right? This is a real, straight-up cure for HIV, right?
It was 1981 when I sat at a table at that fabled lesbian bar, Kindred Spirits, during a Friday night happy hour, reading in TWT about a new “gay cancer” that was afflicting gay guys in New York, Los Angeles, and even in Houston.
For decades after that report appeared, TWT would become less an entertainment gay weekly but rather, more a casualty list. The obituaries printed in the back pages let us know how to plan our calendars for the coming week. Attending funerals, memorial ceremonies and celebrations of life became as routine as shopping for groceries.
After years and years, and years, of unceasing loss, as more and more of my friends and co-workers and showbiz partners dropped, I made a deal with God. I promised Her that if She would grant me the good fortune of winning the newly introduced Texas lottery, I would donate every bit of my winnings, every last penny, to AIDS research. In hindsight, I should have specified that my donation would more quickly lead to a cure.
Back in those early days before we even knew AIDS (then called GRID, an acronym for “gay-related immune deficiency”) was caused by a virus, much less how to avoid contracting that virus, as our gay male friends dropped all around us, many of us lesbians assumed it was just a matter of time before we started dropping, too. After all, if this scourge really was God’s way of punishing homosexuals as so many pastors and politicians insisted, gay women wouldn’t be immune. Surely being a called lesbian would be nothing more than verbiage, a gender technicality.
We talked up safer sex for lesbians, though in all honesty few of us practiced what we preached. Oh, we may have modified our indulgence a bit. But that perceived perception of impending doom still hung over dyke heads like a rainbow-colored sword of Damocles. Funny/not funny how that sword never fell.
Reading the recent news from Seattle left me a feeling numb, a little dizzy. Almost disaffected. It had been years since I’d lost anyone close to me, cold as that may sound. Still, it seemed appropriate to a bottle of champagne. Was this not reason to celebrate?
I drank and watched the bubbles stream rapidly to the top the glass like they were in a race to float up and burst. After a few sips I saw in the bubbles all the souls that had flown away to heaven or the next life or level or wherever.
Earl, Mac, Rey, Kenny, John, Don, Randy, Andy, Richard, Bruce, another Richard, Pavi, Tiffany, Donna, Naomi, Doug, Brian, yet another Richard, Joey, Michael, Pete, Gary, Gene, another Michael, James, Jim, Jimmy, Bob, Kevin. And, and, and, and. Too many bubbles to count.
A friend who isn’t much older than the virus itself recently asked what it was like in those early days, never knowing who would be next to fall. I tried to describe to her the horror of watching a full generation of beautiful, talented young men slowly, cruelly whither to become mere shadows of themselves. They went blind, they went mad. They went.
The quilt. The marches. The demonstrations. The fear. The wails. The abandonment by frightened lovers and employers and funeral homes and churches and families. The relentless testing — every six months because, well, you never know. Going to a bar more often to mourn than to dance.
And then there was the survivor guilt. Those of us not tapped by the virus were left to ask, “Why not me?” Sometimes the answer pointed to lack of certain behaviors. Sometimes it was totally random. Luck of the blood draw, so to speak. Winning that kind of lottery can f*ck a person’s head up, real good.
“It’s hard to explain what it was really like,” I finally told my friend. “You had to be there.”
As I finish writing this column, the stream of floating champagne bubbles has slowed, nearly stopped. I think I’ll go buy a lottery ticket.