I walked the short walk that night from our little cottage to Chasen’s Restaurant with Melanie, my partner at the time, her best friend, Pete, and his partner, Jeff —I was twenty-three and on my way to my first protest.
Pete was the first person with AIDS that I knew. He’d had it ten years by then, funneled all of his energy into fighting back and ACTing UP. Melanie used to say she felt it was his anger and rage that kept him alive so long, that and the fact he never took AZT. All of his friends that had were long gone by then.
It was President Reagan’s 85th birthday, the protest organized by ACT UP, against Reagan’s policy of willful ignorance in response to the AIDS epidemic.
We watched from across the street as the rich and the famous made their way in beneath the bright lights set for the cameras, our chants of “SHAME!” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Republicans have got to go!” broken by the high-pitched shrieks of whistles and noise makers. The collective anger was palpable that night, I felt it running through the crowd and into me. We were fighting for our sick brothers and sisters, for their lives. We had to. Because the Government was failing us.
Pete schooled me in the short time that I knew him. On the politics of AIDS, on what it was like for him, living with It, and the importance of knowledge, and of education between peers. Because the Government was failing us.
He was a big bear of a man when I met him, his round belly and face made so by the many drugs he had to take every day. He was a Radical Faerie who sometimes styled his hair into devil horns and had a smiley face tattooed onto the top of one of his hands. ACT UP stickers papered the door of the apartment he shared with Jeff in West Hollywood, just off Sunset. We’d gone to an REM concert together, the four of us — the Monster tour. Pete had brought his stickers with him, affixed them all over his chest and onto the palms of his hands. Our seats were close to the stage, second or third row. The concert began and each time Michael Stipe stood in front of us, Pete would hold up his hands, bold, black letters over day-glo colors — his attempt to shout the singer out of the closet. We needed more voices and no one was out. It was no surprise that Stipe avoided our side of the stage for rest of the show. Even out for a night of fun, Pete still raged against the dying of the light.
Every so often the phone would ring, Melanie would answer. After a short conversation she’d tell me,
He’s sick again.
Sometimes she wouldn’t hear from him for a while, we’d happen to be driving down Sunset, past his street, see the pink lightbulb in his living room shining down through his window, and we’d know that he was okay. Even after she and I broke up and for years afterward, I would always look at his building, for the pink lightbuld, and wonder.
We’d had my best friend, Marc, over to the cottage one night for dinner. I’d met him at the theatre in our white bread suburbia hometown, working musicals at the civic light opera. I was sixteen, he was nineteen, both of us well into the closet. Three years later he took my hand and led me out of that something, that place, and the fear and walked out of the darkness together. Talking in the living room that night, dishing over his dating life, Melanie piped up,
Are you safe?
He squirmed in his chair, an uneasiness came over the three of us, over the room. He’d answered a brief,
and changed the subject.
My first understanding of AIDS came in 1985. I was twelve years old, attending Catholic school in my white bread suburbia hometown. Ryan White was in the news. He wasn’t much older than I was and he’d been expelled from school because he was infected even though his doctor had given the all clear. He wasn’t the only one.
Watching the news with my Father, I’d hear the familiar litany from some doctor or scientist,
You cannot get AIDS from shaking hands or hugging someone. You cannot get it from going to school with someone or drinking from the same fountain. You can only get it…
And then the familiar litany from the Right,
The homosexuals and IV drug users should change their behavior since they’re getting sick. They’ve brought it on, themselves.
Something new every night, it seemed.
- A petition circulating in California, proposing quarantine for AIDS patients. A year later it would be on the ballot.
- News reports abounding of the sick terminated from their jobs, evicted from their homes, shunned by hospital workers and family, alike.
- And through it all, silence from President Reagan.
I was confused, emotions brought forth by my empathy for others; my understanding of it, disjointed and childlike.
Melanie and I broke up a year or so later and Marc and I grew closer — weekly outings to Rage in West Hollywood to see The Lovely Carol, the host of a talent show there every Tuesday; thrift store shopping; our months long kick eating dinner at the Del Taco at Highland and Santa Monica while prostitutes strolled the boulevard outside; and dancing together on the platforms which dotted the dancefloor — Friday and Saturday nights at Girl Bar, Friday at Ultra Suede, Saturday at The Factory.
I’d noticed he’d taken to wearing foundation on his neck, but I never asked. Looking back, I think I knew, deep down. At the time, I assumed that he’d tell me. Because we talked about everything, our pasts, our presents, our future, our lovers, and what we wanted out of life. Nothing was off limits and it felt like there wasn’t anything I didn’t know about him.
In another year he would flip out on me out of the blue, over a cheap Picasso print from Ikea. We’d go there out of boredom or on a whim and play together in their plethora of fake living rooms and bedrooms. He’d bought the print for me when I was short on cash,
Whenever. Don’t worry about it.
He’d left me a voicemail, raging that he wanted his money. We’d only fought once in the five years that I knew him and that wasn’t even really a fight, more of a misunderstanding. I called him back, left a message, and waited.
Moved on with The Prince from Ohio, on the phone with her one night, I’d said,
Maybe he’s sick and he’s pushing me away.
I would never speak to him again.
The holidays rolled around that year, nostalgia and my longing for him propelling me to the phone. I dialed his number, disconnected. I dialed his work,
Marc Munoz, please.
A quizzical, confused voice on the other end,
And then I hung up.
It wasn’t confirmed until the following spring, I was working crew at the civic light opera and opened the program to ogle the dancers. There, staring back at me, on the front page, screaming at me in bold, black letters,
Dedicated to the memory of Marc Munoz.
I went in hard after Marc died, educating myself, seeking knowledge. I read Randy Shilts’ “And The Band Played On,” a history of the AIDS epidemic in America, the memoirs of Paul Monette, documentaries, listened to RENT on a loop.
I began writing about AIDS ten years later, beginning my studies at City College. I looked for any opportunity to spin innocuous assignments into queer focused, AIDS focused academic work.
And when I landed at UC Berkeley, calling to me in bold, black letters, an opportunity in the Undergrad Research Program — Surviving the Plague: A History of the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco. My assignment would take me to the San Francisco Public Library each week, where I’d read and scan articles from the San Francisco Sentinel, a now defunct LGBT newspaper. I worked on the project for four semesters, beginning in the year 1974, five years after Stonewall, and ending in 1990, at the height of The Plague.
It is said that journalism is a rough draft of history. I journeyed back in time through the history of my community in reading the Sentinel — from the pink cloud of Gay Liberation, I watched them trying to build something for those of us who would come later, to the early days of AIDS, first called Gay Cancer, and then later, GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency. I watched them struggle to make sense of things. Was it the Poppers? Was it the bathhouses? With each issue, I saw their struggle evolve into panic as more began to die, Marc and Pete always close and in my thoughts.
I turned on the news that Sunday morning, just like any other, when those familiar chimes, N B C, broke in to the election coverage pirate streaming on my computer, announcing the death of former First Lady, Nancy Reagan. I went immediately to speak my snarky remark in our virtual public square — Twitter. At first I only came across basic breaking news, RTs from mainstream media and the like. And then. A thread written by a gay brother, waxing on Reagan’s legacy: AIDS. And then, fellow liberals, calling for their critics not to speak ill of the dead.
Her children may see. What about her family?
And so on and so forth.
I’d heard her called “influential,” “a shrewd advisor,” and the President’s “protector” as the tributes flowed forth. Her silence was as deafening as his was. A generation of young people was lost as a result of the Reagans’ willful ignorance, their politics, because of the view, as a GOP bumper sticker of the era proclaimed,
AIDS: It’s Killing All The Right People
This. Was the culture the Reagans’ fostered in the White House, the house that belongs to The People.
We were robbed of the art and beauty those who died never had the chance to create. Following generations of LGBTQ people were robbed of the elders who died too young, well before their time. So many never were given the chance to see now what they began building for us then.
I do not know what it was like to lose scores of friends like some, to see someone drop dead on the sidewalk in the Castro as Cleve Jones did, to be ostracized by the very people who are charged to take care. But I know what it is like to live through those years, first as a child, and then later, as a newly out queer. I’ve felt the very real fear, perpetuated by the Right in their hatred and vitriol against my community, and the anguish of reading my history with a deep understanding of all that occurred, the hindsight of the future, and everything that didn’t.
Mine is a community that has and always will rage against the dying of the light. I will always draw my dagger and speak for those who cannot. For Marc, the boy I met in the theatre, the man who I never said goodbye to. And for Pete, the man who gave me my first glimpse of our power. Both setting me off on the road to becoming — the beautiful queer, the radical, the outlaw.
Do not speak ill of the dead.
The idea was first written in the fourth century, by Diogenes of Laertius. More appropriate, in my opinion, however, is the longer,
De mortuis nil nisi bene dicendum.
Of the dead, nothing spoken unless well (truthfully).
SILENCE = DEATH