Today we commemorate World AIDS Day, as we do every December 1st.  I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was the spring of 1984.  I was seventeen; if it was after April, I was eighteen.  That’s an exciting age — it is full of possibilities and unbridled optimism; for a white, middle-class American boy about to graduate from a Catholic high school the only obstacle to a bright future is a lack of imagination.  Those were “the good ol’ days” — the days before sex could kill you.

At that age, having sex was pretty much all I ever thought about.  So that Friday night, in the old Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center on Highland that for some reason always smelled like cat urine, I hurried up the stairs and down the dingy, poorly lit hallway with the threadbare carpeting to Youth Rap, already late, and quietly surveilled the room for the boy from Temple City I was dating at the time.  I found him halfway back from the speaker looking so damn fine sitting there Indian-style on the floor in his parachute pants and Vans slip-ons, snuck up behind him and kissed him on the back of his neck, then took up a spot next to him; as he reached out and took my hand in his I said, “who is this queen and what’s she droning on and on about?”  Annoyed, he shushed me and said without looking at me or ever taking his eyes off the guy who was speaking, “there’s this thing that can kill us if we fuck, they call it AIDS.”

“Yah right,” I scoffed dismissively, “you sound like the priests from my high school… you can’t die from having sex!  They always told me,” I continued as I turned over my right hand that he was holding in his left, “that if I jacked-off I’d get hair on my palms — either I’m doing it wrong or they lied.”  He ignored me and strained his head to listen more intently to the speaker.  What the hell, I thought, I’ll listen too.

There are moments in your life that you remember with absolute clarity; it’s as if someone had filmed them and you are watching them back in your head.  Sitting there, holding his hand, it was the first time either of us had heard the term AIDS.

Eight years later, at the age of 26, he died — of AIDS.

Revivals on stage and on television of things like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America have introduced a whole new generation — today’s “millennials” — to the horror, the uncertainty, the prejudice, the fear that many of us lived through as we watched friends, loved-ones, boyfriends, partners, or just strangers that were there one day at the bar and then gone the next turn into something resembling the zombies in the video for Michael Jackson’s 1984 song Thriller.

Many today don’t get it, and unless you were part of the gay community back then I dare say you don’t get it either.  I think for many people alive then outside the gay community AIDS was like their experience of another viral epidemic, SARS  — yes there’s a chance you could be infected, but if you stay away from the people whom it seems to be infecting disproportionately — queers — you’ll probably be okay.  But what about us queers?  It’s not like we could stay away from each other!  We were all we had.

We held each others’ hands, we ran to the store to buy milk for the friend whose body was so covered in Kaposi sarcoma lesions that he couldn’t leave the house without causing a stir or frightening small children, and we went to funeral after funeral.  After funeral.  Gone was the teenager’s optimism, replaced with the reality and the sad finality of death after death.  After death.  Any number of times, in the early nineties before I became infected with the virus in 1997, as I watched friend after friend gasp for air or stare past me blankly into space, friends who only a month before I’d been out dancing with under the lights of one of West Hollywood’s trendy gay clubs, I thought of wanting to avoid my turn as the guy in the bed surrounded by terrified friends by making a preemptive and definitive strike against the virus which always threatened to visit me next by removing myself permanently from the swath of destruction it was cutting through my community.

We should remember that those of us in the gay community alive today, because we are the beneficiaries of medicines or just dumb luck, survived a holocaust.  As Larry Kramer prophetically wrote in his now famous scream heard ‘round the gay world on March 14, 1983 entitled 1,112 and Counting:

Our continued existence as gay men upon the face of this earth is at stake. Unless we fight for our lives, we shall die. In all the history of homosexuality we have never before been so close to death and extinction. Many of us are dying or already dead.

Before I tell you what we must do, let me tell you what is happening to us. There are now 1,112 cases of serious Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. When we first became worried, there were only 41. In only twenty-eight days, from January 13th to February 9th [1983], there were 164 new cases — and 73 more dead. The total death tally is now 418. Twenty percent of all cases were registered this January alone. There have been 195 dead in New York City from among 526 victims.

We were kids… well, young adults.  We didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about what was going on around us and, in some cases, happening to us. In order to cope, one guy I dated gave AIDS the name “Pablo.”  That way when we wanted or needed to talk about it, we could just talk about what an asshole Pablo was.  We could relate to an asshole named Pablo; we could not relate to a disease called AIDS.

It’s important that new generations not forget or gloss-over the past, and that older generations not become complacent.  The “crisis” is not over.  And that is why we pause once a year.  To remember.

To remember the hallmarks of the gay community — our overwhelming solidarity, our compassion for the struggles of other oppressed minorities, our intolerance for injustice whenever, wherever, and however it is occurring, and our shared sense of responsibility for each other — are the hard won bittersweet legacy of that time when you really could die from fucking.

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