It's hard to explain what it's been like living as a gay person of my generation – the vast distance we have covered in such a relatively short space of time. From liberation to plague, and then from survival to revolution – all bound up together in that uncontrollable mess we call human consciousness. We sometimes get flashbacks. Integration provokes panic as well as relief. Many AIDS and HIV-survivors of my generation turned to crystal meth to numb what they had been through, like soldiers with PTSD. And so we see that beneath a new surface, old fears and hatreds still lie, desperate children still cry at night, cruelty lurks – and will always be there.
And yet the gap between my grandparents and my niece and nephews on this issue is greater than on any other issue I can think of. The journey I and so many others have made is sometimes bewilderingly long. I went from living for eighteen years in a small town never even hearing the word "homosexual" – let alone gay – to being legally married to another man. In between? Just a mountain of dead bodies and tortured souls – those in the vanguard, those flipped into resistance, and those whose whole lives have been beached by the tides of expanding human self-understanding.
And there's no question in my mind that the past is constantly informing the future. I do not believe, for example, that even a fraction of the progress on civil rights for gays could have come about at this speed without the human catastrophe of the 1980s and 1990s, a decade in which five times as many young Americans died as in the entire Vietnam War. Wars catalyze social change – and the war against a plague was no exception.
Last week, as I and others are slowly absorbing, is when we found, definitively, we had a popular yes for an answer. Not everywhere – but certainly somewhere. And yet the exhilaration of that is marbled with memory that will not let go. Here is EJ Graff, remembering the past, even as she absorbs the tectonic progress of now. Both matter. The one cannot exist without the other – which is why, at this point, so more and more of us bear scars rather than open wounds. But the scars never disappear. In some ways, for some of us, our very identity is difficult to distinguish from scar tissue:
But the bridge EJ mentions was metaphorically crossed last week, as she notes. Somehow the scars are no longer merely things to remember in grief and numbness, but medals of a war whose tide we have now turned. It is a mixture of things, this feeling, this generation, this moment. But it is, in the end, a triumph of the human spirit, and will one day be seen, I believe, as a remarkable social achievement to have turned such a terrifying abyss into rising ground – and so fast.
To quote Mark Helprin again, from his great novel, A Soldier Of The Great War,
and even when I was broken the way sometimes one can be broken, and even though I had fallen, I found upon arising that I was stronger than before, that the glories, if I may call them that, which I had loved so much and that had been darkened in my fall, were shinning even brighter and nearly everytime subsequently I have fallen and darkness has come over me, they have obstinately arisen, not as they were, but brighter.