The day after I went to a Patti LaBelle performance last month, I woke with an acute awareness of having lost something.
The concert itself was a thing of joy for us die-hard Patti fans. Ms. LaBelle brought it for over 90 minutes. There were people in the audience of roughly 3,000 who had seen her live well over a dozen times. The audience ranged in age from teens to octogenarians. We were predominantly a Black group, with a good number of White and Latino (mostly gay) folks in the mix. We stood and hollered and held up our hands. There were tears and laughs. It was pure LaBelle, down to her kicking off her heals.
But 10 hours later, I felt the hurt that there was something important missing in my life.
That morning’s sense of loss might have been prompted by the nostalgia for the days when I went to hear Ike and Tina Turner, and danced till early in the morning to Donna Summer. I might have gotten tangled in the web of feelings brought back by Lady Marmalade or Reach Out and Touch Someone’s Hand. Somehow, though, I suspected it had little to do with Patti’s selection of tunes or the particulars of the memories I associate with them.
When I asked a friend who was visiting for the weekend to sit with me while I jotted down my thoughts, I still had no name for the loss or what it was about. It became very clear quickly, however, when I looked at the list I was making. I had written the names of 24 people whom I see socially at least once a quarter. Our friendships take many forms, as does the frequency of our contacts. Some people on the list I see at least every two weeks; others, every few months. Among them there are men and women, about an equal number of each. They were diverse in age and race. They had several things in common, too.
They are all heterosexual.
I wrote a second list, again with my friend paying attention to me as I did so. This one was the same length. It was as diverse as the first one in many ways, but there were big differences in this list of people. It was my list of LGBT friends. I see them less frequently and they are almost all a decade or two younger than me. A couple are 40 years younger than me.
The loss I woke feeling the morning after cheering for Patti LaBelle was for my men, my peers, the guys my age who were not in the audience because they died more than 25 years ago. Back then, when LaBelle sang Somewhere over the Rainbow or Somebody Loves You, Baby the songs had a very different meaning. My cohort still had each other back then and we were confident someone loved us. The rainbow was our positive future, free of oppression. Now Somewhere over the Rainbow rings as an homage to lost innocence, a song of longing for the great beyond when we might see each other again.
It would be a mistake to read this post and assume that in my view my heterosexual friends are not enough or that my LGBT friends are somehow wanting. These are, to the person, the people that anyone would be delighted to call friends. They are the colorful and vibrant foreground of my life. Still these friends stand with me against a sepia-toned background of my peers, age mates who died in the 1980s and 1990s from complications of HIV disease.
For several years now, the statement that the “worst of the AIDS epidemic is behind us” has grated on me. Even I have been surprised by the degree of my antipathy for that belief. I know quite well scores of young Black gay and bisexual men both with HIV infection and at risk of the infection. The AIDS epidemic is not behind these people who I consider us. In my old job as head of an LGBT public health organization, I could feel the change in the air of the building when a new positive test result was given. I could also feel when a young couple believed they had dodged a bullet, crying with relief that their new relationship was starting with two negative test results.
Still, these two lists I have recently written after hearing Ms. LaBelle also show another reason for my anger over the sigh of relief about the passing of AIDS as no longer a problem.
It remains a problem for me.
Where are my men? I am growing old without my peers. The men I danced and laughed and hugged with are dead. Their deaths came at such a furious pace that they were barely mourned before we were lighting more candles at yet another casket. We survivors had little time to stop and grieve. Our work required a degree of stamina that is shocking in retrospect.
I noted in a post last week that a dear friend of mine, Tom, has decided that this week we will be doing parallel blog posts on AIDS/HIV from our different but complementary perspectives. Tom is a gifted writer more than 25 years my junior. I read his posts daily at 1wholelife.wordpress.com. Tom describes One Whole Life as his musings on life from an LGBT, spiritual, political, wellness, holistic perspective. It is that and more. I hope you will read us both this week as we try to untangle how completely screwed LGBT people have been by HIV and how our resilience is absolutely stunning.