Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Eric Swenson's Story

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.

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

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