In 1982 I ended a relationship with a wonderful man who remains a dear friend still. We are both good guys and generous. I was just not able at the time to understand and address the chasm created by our class differences. Because I had been raised poor and working class, his kind politeness and bewilderment over my feelings were crazy-making for me. Career changes were also compounding the stress and I sort of snapped. Then, like someone exiting a religious cult, I was shunned by many of our old friends. This was not the way to start over in the age of AIDS.
We knew next to nothing about the virus. The little we did know was shared informally and in detail like rural neighbors sharing how best to cast off while knitting socks. We believed the person who shared the information with us, but we deeply doubted their sources.
We were well aware that our government hated us. Even a couple of years into the epidemic, the link between a monkey virus and human infection was sometimes whispered to be caused by men having sex with monkeys. At the time, campaigns aimed at addressing syphilis among sexually active young adults in Milwaukee involved a phone call to a suspected contact who, if he didn’t come in within 24 hours, was picked up by police and taken downtown to the health department for a penicillin shot (first) and questions (later). Interestingly, officials at the time were unaware of the mechanical link between syphilis infection which made mucous membranes more susceptible to HIV transmission. The President would not even mention us as people — an odd circumstance given his wife was being surrounded by gay designers on a weekly basis to feed her need for couture and high-end ready to wear.
Meeting new people and managing sexuality in the early days of the epidemic were terrifying and potentially fatal. We had little information and next to no trust in the sources of the information we had. We also knew no one with the virus at first. I recall getting a call in my apartment one day from an acquaintance who asked if I remembered someone who had moved to another state a decade earlier. Apparently, that man had moved again to San Francisco and was rumored to be infected. The call was intended to warn me to watch for symptoms in case I had ever come in contact with they guy socially. The caller was doing the best he could to keep us safe, but he had driven fear into me because he was suggesting that I might be at risk from having ever even socialized with someone whose name I didn’t know, perhaps touching a drink he had held at a bar a decade ago.
In contrast, today my friend Tom is writing in One Whole Life, that because of education about HIV…
…some of the best dating situations of my life have been with HIV positive men. I’m not afraid – and I say that not in arrogance or cockiness. I say that because of knowledge. I’ve learned how the virus could actually be transmitted to me. I’ve learned what I need to do to prevent that. I’ve learned that I don’t want to go on PrEP, because I’m unsure of the long term side-effects of that medication. I’ve learned that condoms are the safest way to prevent all STD’s, and that really, there is no greater way of showing loving concern for someone than looking out for their health.
In the summer of 1983 I met and fell head over heels in love with Paul, my late husband. He was a young dancer then and new to Milwaukee, having arrived two months earlier with a scholarship to Milwaukee Ballet School. We each had been going on dates with other people earlier in the summer, but each had decided we were not ready to commit again to a relationship. We both were cautious in many ways, but when we met on the beach and he asked for my number, I gave it to him. He offered me his as well, and i turned it down stating that I would not likely call him. Frankly, I knew he was way too handsome for the likes of me and he would not even answer the phone if he had caller ID.
But he did call. (To learn more about Paul and our 31 year marriage, click here.)
A few weeks after we met, my father died. Paul showed his capacity for much more than romance that weekend when most of my close friends were out of town for the long Labor Day holiday. He moved in, straightened my apartment, made some meals, and listened to the complex issues tied to a parent of a gay man dying. I am not sure if that weekend was the start of our three decades of candid conversations, but some time early on we grew accustomed to telling each other the truth to the degree we knew it. Oddly, there was one issue about which Paul dissembled for over a decade.
His lie started because of his ballet scholarship. There was apparently a ceiling on the age at which one could apply for a dance scholarship at his school, so he deducted three years from his age when he moved to Milwaukee. The truly weird part of that for me was that I thought he was too young for me when we met and almost quit him because of it. Still, this deceit weighed heavily on him and I am still pained to know how alone he felt with that.
Still, aside from that oasis, we grew more and more intimate in our expression of our thoughts and feelings. He had to confront that his family was not as rosy as he liked to pretend. I had to admit that mine did have some good qualities. When HIV tests were available, we got them and shared our negative results with each other. After 18 months, we decided to make our relationship permanent and started to tell people that.
We admitted to each other our mutual concern that the timing of our decision was good and still troublesome. Through fidelity to one another, we would avoid HIV. But, if our relationship was partially based on avoiding HIV we would really never know if it would last in a post-HIV society. In retrospect, this lovely frankness was a key factor in the success of our solid relationship. It is also ironic because in one way we would never test our fear. After 31 years, we had not lived in post-HIV society.
In our first year living together, local AIDS cases were being reported in the news. On the heels of our HIV-related discussions, we made a decision using Paul’s extraordinary creativity and mine to address a dilemma. I knew I would need to confront AIDS and what it was doing to me and my friends. I struggled with feeling so happy with Paul while there was a tornado of destruction so near by. Paul was an artist who saw dance and painting as a set of challenges to solve on the way to creating something beautiful. He was expert at solving problems elegantly. Once on track I also know how to make big things happen. So, as I wrote about elsewhere,
Paul and I decided to take HIV into our home instead of our bodies. We decided to work towards its eradication and its care. We never waivered from this decision, which over time became completely entwined with all aspects of our lives — at best, one or two degrees of separation from all of our actions.