Wednesday, December 1, 2010

it takes great courage to survive

Everyone knows life is tougher after the apocalypse than during.

1991. The culture wars were in full swing. Art was being censored, abortion clinics had become battlegrounds, we were fighting an unjustified war, and if you were between the ages of 25 and 44 , AIDS was the number four killer in this country.

There were no cures for the plague. Medicines were as toxic as the disease, and deaths could be long and arduous as well as quick and frightening. We were desperate for help from a government that had been led by one President who avoided saying the word for seven years, and were now trapped by another who was more concerned with drawing a line in the sand with a Middle Eastern dictator than he was about stopping an epidemic in our own country.

In 1988, the Republican National Convention took place in New Orleans. There was a rally scheduled in Armstrong Park, a memorial of sorts for people who had died of HIV. It was taken over by activists from New York. Boys wearing leather with buzz cuts and dykes wearing cock rings on their shoulder straps ran amok. They were unapologetic and forceful. No matter what our elected officials had done, they screamed it wasn’t enough. They disrupted, they confronted, and they acted up.

I had never seen anything like it. At the end of the demonstration, I cornered one of the women and asked her what I could do to help. She looked me in the eye and told me to find a group and get involved. It would take me three years to find the courage to take action.


January 1991. We were planning an event. It was a march to be followed by a die in. That’s when everyone falls on the ground and people draw chalk outlines of the bodies to symbolize those who have died from the virus. The night before ACT UP New York stormed the CBS evening news, interrupting Dan Rather’s broadcast. He didn’t bat an eye, didn’t stop to ask what had driven someone to the point of taking direct action in front of a national audience.

Everyone was tense after that incident. People expected all sorts of disruptions around the country. We arrived outside City Hall and found an unusually large number of police officers. And media. But there were not a lot of protesters. New Orleans was not politically active and on top of that it was cold, grey and rainy. We marched anyway.

When it came time for the die in, the showers had grown into a full blown storm. The sidewalk was icy and wet. We looked at each other, unsure what to do while the cameras rolled. And then Doug spoke up.

Doug was an elderly man, a Gandalf of sorts to the activist community. He had grey hair, and a beard, wore a cool fedora and walked with a cane. He had been around forever, knew everyone, and was unashamed to speak his mind or share his HIV status.

“OH! I feel like dying!” he shouted into the misty air.

And then he fell, onto the ground. This sixty year old man, crippled with neuropathy, recently recovered from pneumonia, skinny as a rail, had to show us that cold concrete was nothing compared to standing around, frozen and inactive.

We followed his lead, falling hard, drawing lines. The reporters asked us questions, we got the message out and the day was a success.


This afternoon I lit the candle I keep on the shelf next to Keith’s ashes. I tried to remember the names and faces of everyone who has departed this world because of this invisible demon. And I swept the floor, paid the bills and lived the life that we were fighting for while we lay on the sidewalk in the pouring rain.

Now, sitting in front of the television, I can’t find a single special, movie or program devoted to the memories of the people who fought the battle and lost. Nothing to remind the audience that despite all the new drugs, it hasn’t gone away. And I wonder if anyone remembers Doug's strength.

The news talked about a work of art by David Wojnarowicz at the Smithsonian being censored, a battle in a foreign country, and a fight over allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

The never ending war continues.

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