Monday, November 25, 2013

Laying My Ghosts to Rest, After Far Too Long

UPDATE: This is Part One.  Part Two is here.

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.


  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'