I miss my brothers from decades ago, who died of AIDS, and who will forever be young, slender and handsome in my memories. When the server asks me to make a "birthday wish" as he brings me a dessert with a lit candle upon it, I wish that I could simply REMEMBER those men's names. And I cry.
I wish that I could see them with me, ogling the server's cute ass; they should be gray-bearded, with Daddy bellies, bad hearing and eyesight, and having health issues related to old age. They never got the chance. I did, and I'm feeling a big old load of Survivor's Guilt. It's not rational, but it's ever-present.
I've done a couple of hundred hour's worth of therapy, self-help workshops and the like, trying to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but nobody has been able to help me grieve for a GENERATION. It feels like one lifetime is not enough to deal with such pain.
Following my sweet and patient husband's advice, I want to tell a story about a glorious gay-male subculture that existed for a brief time, and then died. This is a story that I have never told before:
This is what I looked like, back then.
I am with my nephew, who I raised as my son.
Yes, even in my early twenties, I was a "Daddy"!
Some of you may be familiar with the documentary called "Paris Is Burning," which tells the story of a New York subculture of gay men and transgender women. They created an artistic form of dance called "vogueing", which Madonna saw and popularized 25 years ago. Their story is rich and valuable, and I'm very glad that it was documented on film.
My version of that story has existed only in my memories, until now, since I am the only survivor of a similar subculture that existed in San Diego, back in the late 1970's. It didn't have a name, and it wasn't formalized. Madonna never made a video popularizing our special tribe, but oh, how I wish that she had.
There were about forty of us, at our peak - Young gay men, most of us with zero support from our genetic families, having been disowned for being gay. We lived in "Boy's Town" (Hillcrest, in San Diego), because the gay ghetto supplied us with a self-protective environment. We found each other on the dance-floors at the many local discotheques.
We gathered together, based upon raw, native talent. We all acted as scouts, bringing in new men who showed something "extra" on the dance floor, in the form of special, creative moves. As our group grew, we would arrive at a disco and TAKE OVER. We would encourage each other to take greater risks with our creativity, in order to impress our peers, and to "win" the evening's competition.
These were men with large amounts of a special ability, in the form of bodily–kinesthetic intelligence. In my own case, I know over 400 forms of dance, though I have never taken a formal class. I simply have a rare, special talent for watching somebody dance for about a minute (at most), and then I can do that dance, perfectly, and then extrapolate new moves to go along with it.
I can hear a specific rhythm, and then match that rhythm with free-form dance that changes wildly every few seconds, and never repeats. Those 400 or so forms of dance are still in me, decades later. They are in my arsenal. I never fail to impress the hell out of young people at wedding receptions.
Imagine my joy at finding dozens of brothers who shared my special superpower, while we were so young and energetic. We'd gather together several times a week, and do our best to encourage each other to create the most exciting new moves and dance-forms. Words can't convey how deeply satisfying it was to earn the respect of these superbly talented men.
The closest equivalent to our subculture can be seen in the recent Emerald City scene in the middle of "The Wiz Live!" that was broadcast on NBC in December 2015. The choreographer did NOT make up those moves - they are all carefully gathered from historically-documented "vogue" subculture.
Now, imagine forty of us, wildly working just as hard to stand out, in a crowd of ultra-proficient dancers. Try to imagine the reactions of the crowd around us, who had arrived specifically to appreciate our thoroughly entertaining crew.
Back in the days when Saturday Night Fever was new and in the theaters, my Navy buddies would rave about the movie, saying "You've never seen dancing so good!" So, I went, and spent the whole movie sneering at the contrived and stiff choreography. I was hanging-out with men who each had more raw, wild talent than that entire dance crew in the movie, combined.
Up to that point, I had been a freak in my Catholic family... The very first openly-gay person in my entire family history, and it was NOT a good time to come out, but I knew that I had to, because my idol Harvey Milk had told me so. It was rough, but I have no regrets.
This was a peak time in my young life - I had found my TRIBE! We were on the same rocket-ship to the stars, together.
Then, the men around me started to sicken, go downhill fast, and then die. My dance-brothers would show me their dark-brown lesions, or the thrush in their throats. They would suddenly disappear, to move back to Iowa or Nebraska, to die with their families. Or, they would die in local hospitals, where nobody was allowed anywhere near them. I have documented more about this time, elsewhere:
Laying My Ghosts to Rest, After Far Too Long:
Part One and Two: Fun Stuff, and In the Midst of the Holocaust
Part Three: Grieving, After Three Decades
Part Four: Eric's Story
Part Five: Catharsis At Last
So, where does this leave me, after decades of grief, loss and Survivor's Guilt? I manage pretty well, most days. Like so many gay men of my age and experience, I'm emotionally damaged, and always will be. On the good side, it has caused me to be empathetic to an extraordinary level. I also cry multiple times a week, and it is always cleansing, but sometimes, it is embarrassing. I have to be okay with that.
I still dance, though I'm pretty creaky, and I don't have that youthful stamina any more. However, when I hit my groove, and the old feelings come back, I am MANY men dancing, all in one. I hold my long-lost brothers in my heart, and honor them by dancing FOR them, since they can't dance any more.
I hope to see you on the dance-floor!
Feedback from Sir Ian:
Dear Papa Tony,
I just read your post in FMSD about grieving your 60th and I saw something online that I wanted you to see as well, if you have not yet. Can you can make out a dancing man on the part of this bowl that is facing you?
By the time men get to our age, most, maybe all, men have had their perfection, youth, dreams and relationships profoundly affected by pain, loss, ill health, missed opportunity and a whole truckload of unfairness.
But for the survivors, our cracks and imperfections are filled with gold.
Glistening for all to see, so we don’t kid anybody, least of all ourselves.
Softer than steel because we are not superhuman and have vulnerabilities to balance our developing wisdom.
And as in kintsukuroi, standing tall in our new maturing beauty, impossible to appreciate as beauty by a child who will only see the damage, but an adult celebration of the result of the complex natural forces of life.
And what of the men who did not survive? If those men who you lost so many years ago could see you now, what you have done repairing your cracks with gold - if they could see what you have done with your community, what they never got a chance to do, even if they had wanted to, I am sure they would deeply thank you and consider your mentorship, love and enthusiasm a perfect way to honor them. No golden repair needed there, my friend.
Feedback from James Xavier:
Nice piece Anthony HUGS!!
I didn't come out until 2014 at the age of 51 after 34yrs of marriage. I was fortunate in some ways that I didn't come out in the mid 1970's.
The way I enjoy sex with multiple partners I would have never survived.
One of the difficult aspects of being closeted during the epidemic was going to so many gay men's funerals as a Hetero and listening to the whispers about how they died of "the AIDS" and knowing I would have been one of them. Unlike most of the people in attendance I understood what AIDS was and how it spread.
I went to 11 funerals in the late 80's but 6 were made more tragic by the fact they were 3 couples, all Masc, muscled Latin men I worked with. The type I enjoy dating today, most of our coworkers didn't even know they were gay until they got sick.
When I came out I did feel some sense of guilt for two reasons. One I came out at a time when it was far less dangerous socially and two I came out when PrEP was available.
I got over the guilt about coming out late in life after realizing how much I suffered in the closet for so long. I was attracted to females and being gay didn't seem like an option back then so I truly believed I could stay Hetero.
As for item two, coming out when HIV was not only survivable but also preventable, I accepted that I cannot bring any of the wonderful gay men back and instead have become an advocate for PrEP.
Gay people have a unique ability to enjoy life free from the oppressive mostly religious based societal rules and part of that enjoyment comes from embracing sex in many forms.
So I work to allow us to reclaim the sexual freedom we knew back then and that is how I deal with my struggle for those who are no longer here.