I, You, We: Living with AIDS
As American art museums go, New York’s Whitney (the old one, in the Upper East Side, before they moved it to the High Line) is the top of my list. In April 2013, I visited for a book launch event in Chelsea and then trekked Northward to pass five hours wandering exhibits of contemporary art.
While there, I consumed an exquisite curation called I, You, We: Art & AIDS. I uncontrollably and openly sobbed, as I walked through a room with photos by David Wojnarowicz and paintings by Hugh Steers. I stared into the hollow, sepia-tinged eyes of gay men gasping their last breaths under the oppression of a disease that disproportionately affected vibrant souls of gay men in the years when I was in elementary school.
The tears I shed were for myself: a selfish, privileged homosexual whose way of life was mortgaged by these men who suffered through one of the greatest American tragedies of the twentieth century. In an exhibit that challenged my sense of pronoun referents, I finally accepted that these chilling pieces embodied I and We. That I cried in public was no surprise. I’d always been considered a sensitive child; I grew into a sensitive adult. Until I graduated from college in the late 1990s, gay was something that was wholly not I. It was the realm of You. Others, “You, gay men,” languished of AIDS while I dwelt in my adolescent closet. The imminent death of these men, whose painful stares into the abyss of an uncertain afterlife, was pushed as far away from I as possible.
My closeted—repressed—youth was punctuated by unsatisfied longings hidden by a Wilde-like wit and a boisterous disposition. I watched from the safety of the sidelines, judgmentally. With a child’s innocence and a Baptist’s fear, I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it meant when man’s man Rock Hudson died, flamboyant Liberace wasted away, or when Adonis-like Greg Louganis split his head on the diving board.
AIDS was something that You had.
I was more lucky than anything. My delayed coming-out coincided with the first year that effective treatments (besides abstinence) led to a decline in AIDS diagnoses. In 1996, I graduated college, moved to Orlando, kissed a boy and messed around for the first time. I loved sex and made up for 22 years without it. I was reckless. I mistook my luck in the face of recklessness as something I had earned. It was a selfish arrogance rooted in the fact that I still saw AIDS as something for the other, for the You.
Luckier still is the newest generation that doesn’t know about life without an Internet or life behind an AIDS-sentried closet door.
We all have our coming out stories, our emergence from closets. For me that was closely connected to my understanding—my misunderstanding—of AIDS. Over the intervening two decades, I have come face to face with people I care very much about—people I love—living secretly with HIV. I can’t do anything but love them. That, in 2018, we can live with HIV and leave it unspoken, is a privilege financed by souls in the 1980s. For those who have proclaimed their affliction with the virus, if not the stigma, I thank them for giving it a human, living, resilient, brave face.
What this means, of course, is that I, too, am living with HIV. As real as it is to the bodies of these people I love, it is real to me. I do not carry the virus in my body, but I carry it in my soul, in my cultural memory, in my gay genes.
AIDS is part of a We that I cannot escape: that I wouldn’t if I could. Though I’ve known its tangential reality to my relationship to a diverse community, I’ve known it directly and blossomed along the path that’s tangibly affected my evolving ideological DNA. I share a heritage with those men I encountered in I, You, We. I know that the connection I have with those hollow, last-gasped, painful gazes implicates me in a community whose membership within which I have no choice for opting out. I know that I am the heir to Rock Hudson, a peer of Liberace, and a brother of Greg Louganis. I know that I am nothing more than lucky.
After 43 years on Earth and 22 years evolving into my truth, I am proud to proclaim that I am We. 360 thousand men died of AIDS between 1980 and 1996. I am lucky that I was not one of them. I didn’t know any of them personally. These martyrs, victims of an oppressive pre-equality culture that dehumanized them, made it possible for me to live: to be proud today.
Each day I wake up in the throes of love, not just for my spouse, but for the men who made it possible for me to be I. I am thankful, though grief-stricken, for the lifeless eyes—the stolen souls—of my gay forefathers. I am thankful that language and history can link how I see myself and how I see the world around me. I am thankful for the love of art—for sensitivity—that tear-streamed vision made real: that made I, You, We into a reality about who I am and where I fit into a world of love that has transformed my understanding of who I am—with You—into a persistent and proud We.
I am thankful that, in 2018, I am able to live with—and proudly, because of—AIDS.