Monday, November 25, 2013

Laying My Ghosts to Rest, After Far Too Long

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I'm a gay leatherman who has worked very, very hard for years to make our community a better place.  I've done my best to bring us all out of the Holocaust Phase, and into the next one.  

I can't predict the way that the future will go - that is for a younger, less-damaged generation to decide, now that better days are here at last, and we are blessed with many wonderful, younger leaders.  It's their show now, and I'm glad.

I'm ready to retire from active community leadership now.

"Grace/Beauty Broken/Repaired 1981-2013"
by Papa Tony. Originally an exquisite, elegant,
crisp, black-on-pure-white artwork done in
calligraphy style.  One of my best works from 1981,
just before my best friend became catastrophically ill.

He died 2-1/2 weeks after the first symptom.
I couldn't touch him or come near as he lay dying,
because nobody knew what was causing it.
I cried in the doorway for hours, yearning to hold him.
He died alone, begging to be comforted and held.

For 2013, I re-expressed the design as a damaged,
 partial memory of a memory in collage format,
torn, dirty and patched after decades of change and sorrow.

The beauty is still there, prevailing and still being
expressed, despite everything that has come at it.
Life is like that. We have to live, while we can.

The “AIDS Ribbon” inside the design
was a fortuitous coincidence, created
ten years before the first red ribbon showed up in 1991.
The original piece spoke to me very strongly
during this article, so I had to re-release it.

I am planning to have a single-man ceremony at the beach, where I will finally lay my 140+ ghosts to rest.  I will ask their forgiveness for finally ending the work that I’ve done in their name for so many years, and achieve final closure. I’ve been a turbo-charged dynamo in the Tribe for decades, because I’ve wanted to take up every scrap of the work that my dead brothers no longer could. 

It’s a crazy-making behavior. No wonder folks think I’m peculiar.  If more guys of my age and background were telling their stories, I’d look downright average.  

I’m glad that the younger generations haven’t had to hold dozens of friends over a handful of years, and tell each loved and precious young man in your arms that "it’s time to let go”.

It’s scarring to be the only one who survived from a 40+ man Leather Family.

I expected to be dead like everyone else that I loved, twenty five years ago. I never planned to become older.

Going to two or three funerals a WEEK for several years has left a lifelong wound, and I’ve tried to use all of that unresolved rage, Survivor's Guilt and grief in a healthy way. As long as I kept it inside, it was killing me in a slow-motion suicide.  I HAD to externalize all of that passion, for the sake of my own sanity. I felt like I was helping my dear, dead brothers, lovers, boyfriends, fuckbuddies, mentors, Daddies and loving uncles in some way, if I was carrying on the work that they were meant to do.

Now, this is finally the point where I let all of my beloved ghosts go at long last, and I plan to find myself somewhere underneath that ghostly pile.  I don’t know what I will find, but I sure hope that it’s peaceful and relaxing. I’ve been holding up the weight of the world for so fucking long.

I’ve been fearing retirement like death. I've been struggling with it, but every day brings me closer to peace and acceptance. 

I'm ready to love and be loved.  That's all.

Addendum, by American Leatherman 2013 Aaron Duke:

Whether you are young or old, new or well seasoned in the leather community, please take the time to read this. This is our future. This is where we go from here.

In every community, there is a small percentage of older gay leathermen left. I have traveled around the country and had the opportunity to meet some of them. They are the men left after the HIV/AIDS holocaust that swept through our communities in the 80's and 90's. If you sit down and listen to them, they have a story to tell. They have knowledge and wisdom to share with the youth of today. Many of them are reaching the point of exhaustion. They have been the ones who have kept everything together for years after countless deaths plagued our communities and no one was left to keep it all together.

When I began hanging around the leather community in 1998, I was the youngest one by far. I also noticed there seemed to be an age gap. A group of men, missing. They seem to have just vanished. There was that group of men, much older than I, who seem to be at every event, spearheading every committee, and working relentlessly. Many of these men were mentors to me on so many levels. These were the men I looked up to as a young, gay, leather man. They are the men that I have tried to emulate.

For the other young men out there, it is human nature for us to seek out others who are similar to us. This is perfectly okay, but don't forget about the men that came before us. Sit down with them. Have a coffee. Share a meal. LISTEN to their story.

Men of my generation cannot fathom what this experience must have been like. The years and years of stories I have heard cannot even begin to make me understand on a basic level the emotional distress this has put on these men. The truth is, many of them are still carrying the "survivor's guilt" within them. It is something that will never go away.

I was honored to be the 30th Mr San Diego Leather in 2012. I wanted to meet and get to know the men that came before me. Even if they didn't live in San Diego anymore, I was able to track them down and meet them. So many of them are already dead.

For those more mature men of our community, this is a declaration. There are many young, vibrant, eager, and idealistic young men out there that are chomping at the bit to take the reins from you. We are here to help you. You don't have to do it alone. If you feel it is your time to "retire" from public service, know that you work will always be remembered and appreciated. You can rest assured WE will continue your work in your honor.

To the younger men, it is time for us to step-up and continue the work the wonderful men before us have achieved. We come with new, fresh ideas that can only improve where we are now. Be bold! Be daring! Always do it from the heart. We owe it to the men that came before us to continue the traditions of the past while blazing new paths before us. Our time has come. The time is now.

Note from Tony:  I received this series of messages from my dear friend Eric, who has been in my life since around 1978.  I asked him if I could post his comments as an Addendum to my recent article, and he said yes.

Eric's Story

Tony, I wanted tell you how much I admire what you wrote, and also wanted to help you inform others what we went through during those dark days.  Younger people can only learn by what we teach them!

You inspired me!  We have been working through all of those ghosts!!

Thank you, Papa Tony, for your heart-felt blog and art about memories of decades of change, and of sorrow...

"One of my best works from 1981,
just before my best friend became catastrophically ill. 

He died 2-1/2 weeks after the first symptom.
I couldn't touch him or come near as he lay dying,
because nobody knew what was causing it.
I cried in the doorway for hours, yearning to hold him.
He died alone, begging to be comforted and held."

If one has never experienced that, let these words inform the new and younger men, and remind the older men in our tribe.  Brotherhood will be so much more complete.  These words (yours, above) brought back memories of so many of my experiences during those years.  You are such a special man to this community and to me (as a friend for 34 years!).  What's past is past, but the reality of those times is often all too forgotten, or even known, by many today.  Straight culture has begun to accept us--and it didn't happen overnight!  The older of us all know how well we fought for equality and acceptance, and mourned an unbelievable number of friends over a ten year period 30 years ago.  How did we find the courage to keep going in those dark days?!

My lover Paul and I participated in the LA Gay Pride parade in the early '80's, when a professional photographer from the crowd was taking portraits of us together embracing and showing our love.  We discovered it was for Newsweek and their famous "Gay" Issue!  We both had security clearances and couldn't sign the releases because we would have lost our jobs.

As an added insult to the 'self-esteem injury' of being citizen outcasts, HIV was thrust upon us.  Men started dying in huge numbers and, early on, no one knew why.  While we cared for and buried friends/loved ones, we all worried that we'd be next.  Culture blamed gay men for AIDS.  I just finished my 30th year of volunteering as a control in hospital studies related to AIDS research.  I was dedicated to this and took a personal stand to find the cure, or at least helpful meds.  I took days off work to do this.  And, sadly, most of the friends I joined the study with died.  Papa Tony, you are so right, it wasn't easy that we had to survive that..., and the unresolved rage, survivor's guilt and grief was a bonus, so to speak.

Recently on an Atlantis cruise, a performer asked the younger men to introduce themselves during the week to older men and thank them for their contributions to life as it is today.  I met several younger men, and I was quite surprised and felt honored.  I will never forget our lives then and the sorrow of losing so much of our community.  The complete joy for an older man/warrier is that I will never forget the recent beautiful acts of heart-felt brotherhood and acknowledgement by younger men--A true bonding experience.  As you said, we're "ready to love and be loved."  We've earned it more than anyone could know.

The moral of this is that we are all in this together.  Schooling-- teaching and learning!
As I learned in the seagoing Navy, our 'chain' is only as safe as the strength of its weakest link.

Fondly, my dear friend...
Eric Swenson

Tony, more thoughts...,

Not only was I a leatherman in early days, but I was President of SAGA Ski Club in 1983, an all-sports organization the likes of which had never been seen before in SD.  Our mission was to present gay men (and some women members) as wholesome, everyday, and upright people in the broader Hillcrest community.  We provided comraderie, fun, and an example to the straight community.  We had 300 members that met monthly at Mr. Dillon's before it was Rich's.  We sponsored trips of all varieties, including skiing, hiking, camping and cultural. We won first place in the Gay Softball League that year.  Our yearly black-tie, sit-down Christmas party and stage show in the Cafe del Rey Moro Ballroom in Balboa Park is, to this day, fondly remembered.  (I donated a DVD of highlights of ten years of shows to the Gay Archives.)  We took smaller versions of the show on the road and performed in many bars during that time to raise money for AIDS research.  As president of SAGA, I attended meetings of most of the other clubs in our gay community as outreach and support, hoping to achieve a community cohesiveness.  I helped others get San Francisco SAGA underway, and marched as a leather man in the SF Pride Parade several years, supporting gay state politician Carole Migden.  I couldn't march in San Diego because of my security clearance, but still wanted to do my part.

All of this was pioneering stuff, and I'm sure ground breaking, when one stops to think about the gay community and organizations that operate successfully and openly today.

May the memory of all our friends and fellow leaders lost over the years never fade...  During those years, I made a list of names of friends among us who "fell" during our "battles."  Many of them often alone, embarrassed, in pain, and outcast.  Winning the fight against AIDS and for human diginity didn't happen overnight and never easily.  I review my list at times to keep my focus on what we have at hand and are still working for, and to recognize THEIR accomplishments.  All of these men, pioneers in their own ways, contributed to make OUR community what it is today...

Eric Swenson

Placidity and Catharsis, Achieved At Last!

even-tempered, calm, tranquil, equable, unexcitable, serene, mild, 'calm, cool, and collected', composed, self-possessed, poised, easygoing, levelheaded, steady, unruffled, unperturbed, phlegmatic, unflappable.

See also: Feeling Fuckin' MELLOW.

After posting my recent, ultra-deep article, I have been worried that folks are under the impression that I'm still dragging around a big old sack o' sadness.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  I'm glad to share the great news.

I have fully achieved catharsis, and it kicks ASS.

After writing the article (nearly three weeks ago), I read my own words, and cried.  After a while, I read the article again, and cried some more.  Cleansing, restorative, blessed release of old, old pains that have been burdening me. After 36 hours of repeating this process, I found that I was done.  I felt clear and complete.  I simply didn't have any more old baggage cluttering up my life any more.

Since then, I have slept like 2.7 babies (really cute ones), every single night. :->

I don't get frustrated like I used to.  Nothing tends to throw me for a loop.  I WANT to tell my friends that I have not yet achieved Nirvana (doesn't that take years of intensive training?), but I'm sure the hell feeling like I've matched up perfectly with Wikipedia's definition of the word.

This is awesome. I wish everybody in the world could feel this way. Peaceful, relaxed and accepting. This is the best that I ever felt in my entire life, and it NEVER STOPS.

So, I say to my brothers who have suffered under the burden of loss to AIDS in your lives:

It's time to deal with the pain, face up to it, and let it go, in whatever way that works best for you.  In my own case, I sought out a Cognitive Therapist. I didn't fight it, because I was R-E-A-D-Y.

The payoff is bliss. We deserve plenty of that, in what remains in our lives.


  1. Poignant, authentic and poetic posts. Thank you Papa T and Sir Aaron!!! xoxo

  2. Tony, you know I lived through the same stuff. All but one of my exes are now dead, almost all from HIV. I don't know if you knew Frank Rouse and Bill, but I was involved with them, Bill for 10 years. I have no idea how Bill and I ended up HIV-neg today, but we did. And SO many friends and acquaintances gone. It's a wonder people like you and I have remained sane...and, BTW, you ARE loved!

  3. For twenty years, starting in the early 70's up until the early 90's, I was with a partner and living a life in a "straight world" that was closed off from my former community. I look back at that time now as having been locked away in an "Ivory Tower" that shut out all the pain that so many were experiencing then...and those that still do now. It's not possible for me to know what those who were once my peers have gone thru. My life had taken a different path and led me away from it. It brought me back to it in ' 93 when I had entered a relationship with someone else and thru that relationship I had exposed myself to HIV and got an AIDS diagnosis. That wasn't the same for me as it had been for those who had faced it before me. For that was when there was beginning to be Hope. But, I can feel the pain that still exists for so many and I am deeply moved by it...... Namaste'

  4. I grew uo far from the urban centers in a sleepy town in NE Connecticut. As a scared gay teen, anything that showed gay anything was few and far between. Over night it was as if a switch had been thrown. Popular culture moved from the party life and Studio 57 to pages of obituaries. In the small communities causes of death were rarely mentioned: natural causes, or after a long battle with illness. Never would you see Mr. John Doe 32, died of cancer. The paper would get letters of protest. I would hear my Grandfather talking back to the TV about the queers, especially during a Pride march. Men and women who I was only starting to look toward as mentors, suddenly vanish.


    I will never know the hurt, the dispair, the loneliness or the heartbreak that men like you Papa Tony experienced.

    I want to say, I'm sorry. I want to say, Thank You. I want you to know that I am honored to stand on your's and many others shoulders. The pain and the battle still exist, but without men and women like you. From the men and women who are no longer with us. Thank you for showing me what true love is.