How To Survive A Plague, Ctd

A reader writes:

Had not planned to burst into tears this morning. Thinking of those early days reminds me of those first obituaries with no mention of AIDS, just the OIs which did in fact kill the person – that cynical and convenient way of avoiding, even in death, the sexual identity of the person who had died. And no lover, boyfriend, or spouse however significant was generally mentioned. Eventually the phrase “longtime companion” crept in, which seemed to me then a monumental breakthrough. Now we have marriage and a president who speaks of it. This unthinkable (to me) chapter of my generation’s gay experience fills me with hope and pride. And yes, tears for those who left too soon. Thank you for posting this.

Our reader’s mention of the ghastly euphemism “longtime companion” reminds me of the under-rated movie of that name and its emotionally overwhelming ending (see above). Another writes:

Your blogging on the subject of “The Plague Years” makes me mad at myself that I haven’t written more about those I lost. They all deserve that from me – the last one – but those memories hurt, as you well know.  And I did not come out unscathed; while not having to deal with HIV issues, I am dealing with other health issues.

The thing is, I can’t even really talk to my partner about those times, as he didn’t come out until I met him, nine years ago.  He was 34, and pretty much was the only person on the planet who DIDN’T know he was gay.  So he saw nothing of the Hell we, the survivors, lived through, and only has an intellectual knowledge of that era.  It is a time that has no relation to him, even though he was an adult then.

I’m not much for support groups and the like, and, while I am thankful to be alive, I owe it to my old friends to take to the keyboard and write the damned thing! Thank you for the tears and the swift kick in the ass.

Another sends the quilt image seen after the jump and writes:

I normally would have avoided this movie so as to avoid reliving the pain of losing my brother, Donald J. Morris. But you have 99% convinced me that – because you were in the mix, taking notes, and saying that this film gets the chronology right – I can trust it to help me get back some of those foggy lost years.


I tested positive for HIV a month ago. I suspected I had it, I’ve had several inexplicable illnesses the last six months including ear infections, tonsillitis, random fevers, anal redness and most recently shingles – which finally got me to the clinic. I’m 37 and knew that I wouldn’t have shingles at this age unless my immune system was compromised by HIV. When I received the initial news “your test came up reactive” my head began swelling and felt like it would pop. I’ve a few ideas how I might have gotten infected, but I’ve never consciously had unprotected sex, and always thought I was safe. Must have been a drunk one, I guess.

I’m writing to you because I feel like apologizing. Getting infected now feels disrespectful to everyone that has worked so hard to fight this. I had all the information, I know the history, but I was reckless. It’s been two weeks that I’ve been on Complera. One pill. Every morning. Forever. And I’ll be fine. I already feel better. A lot better. My issues are whom to tell, will I be rejected by other men, making sure I never lose insurance, getting the refills in time. You’ve experienced things I will never know, and thanks to you and all the soldiers of the plague years my HIV status is reduced to simply a pill a day and a stigma, maybe. I’m not ready to watch that documentary, everything is a bit too fresh and I’m not so solid emotionally. I didn’t mean to do this to myself and never thought it was ok to be unsafe, I have always tried to be careful. Maybe an apology is appropriate, maybe not. It happened and I can’t change it now. I’m going to live. And I’m going to be fine. So I guess more importantly, I want to say thank you.

A couple of thoughts: enough with the apology and shame. They are the things we were most adamant about defeating, and I have to say that the biggest surprise of my HIV-diagnosis for me was discovering how much shame I still carried. I told my nephew once: “I’m so sorry I let you down.” No one would say that with a diagnosis of, say, diabetes or cancer, even though they may be connected to behavior. So no shame and no thanks needed either. We were fighting for our own lives, as well as others’. This was not an unselfish act. Another writes:

I’m sitting at my desk at work with tears streaming down my face.  Your words have such power and beauty.  I’ve been reading your stuff for years – I have a battered hardback copy of Virtually Normal that I bought a few weeks after it was published – and you still have the power to surprise and move me and this is some of the best writing you’ve ever done.  The line “the great horizontal cathedral of the AIDS quilt” is going echo in my head for days.  That’s what it is.  A fantastic, unexpected cathedral that is a space of sacred grief.

I visited the AIDS quilt once.  That was enough.  It’s overwhelming.  When one friend Quiltdied, his partner put together a display of all the artwork he’d done.  Pictures of my now-dead friend, young and handsome with his other young and handsome friends, playing and enjoying life and with notes of how many of them had died.  AIDS was a horror.

I’m a few years younger than you and I still recall the bone-deep terror of AIDS in those dark days of the 1980s.  As a gay teenager in a small town in Utah, all I knew was that I would die of AIDS because that’s the information we got – gay men got AIDS and died.

When I was first-year high school student, a neighbor came home and announced he was gay.  The town agreed his father and brothers were right to beat the crap out of him and send him away – after all, the people around me said, who knew who he’d infect with AIDS.  And when he came home in the 1990s with AIDS, the town agreed his parents should throw him out. When they didn’t, no one knew how to react.

As first-year college students, my friends and I discussed in whispered voices “How do you stay safe?”  “What do you do when . . . ?”  “Where can I get condoms without having to answer some nosy pharmacist’s questions?” “Who can I talk to?”  The terror was almost too much – we all wore our Silence = Death shirts on campus.  It seemed like such a daring act at the time and maybe it was.

I’ve lost only a few friends to the plague.  But it marked all of us with an inescapable belief that sex could be deadly and that fucking is an act of incredible courage.  So many lives lost.  So much suffering.  I am weeping.