The year I am not sure of but the time span at least manageable I can say for certain that it was at least 1982 and proably not yet 1984 or 5. By 1982 I had figured out that part of the most likely explanation for the last several years of confusion was that I was gay. And by that I mean I was a lesbian except I never did like that word but I don’t think that by 1982 I had tried on ‘dyke’ for size. I had heard the word of course and usually in the pejorative voice of course but I did not recognize myself in it during that time that I was out to myself but had not actually done anything more dykey than go to a gay bar and run into a friend from high school and immediately develop an unbearable crush on her that lasted for several weeks during which I had no idea what to do about this sort of crush and so I did nothing and never saw her again.
I think maybe I had to at least march in my first Pride March before I could consider myself a dyke but that would be a bit later although not much since it would have been June of 1983 unless I waited till I was out of my parents’ house to risk appearing on tv as whatever I was: dyke, lesbian, gay, queer, one of Those.
Gay was enough for Marietta Georgia anyhow: are you gay was a question that could be put to anyone of any gender. Not that there were more than the two regulation genders in the world that I knew at that time but gay covered everyone except when queer was spat out with the lord’s own disgust. It would be a little while before we queers thought to use the word for ourselves although it would also be quite soon and probably many had already begun only until you had got your courage up to go to the most obvious gay bar in the city you wouldn’t have heard it used by those people who turned out to be your people.
But so I was reading the paper and I was reading about either punk rock or about the AIDS crisis and I think maybe the news was on TV and the news anchors in Atlanta were able to say the word even though the president of the US still had not mentioned it even once and to whomever may have been listening my mother pondered out loud.
I wonder why lesbians don’t get AIDS.
I have no doubt that I did not stir even slightly but kept staring at the paper thinking yeah I could answer that and in however much detail was necessary to get the point across that the most probable vectors of transmission had nothing to do with whether one was gay or straight but what sort of sex one might do involving especially semen but also blood and the natural lube that nobody has a name for besides vaginal secretions which seems short-sighted and so at the time we thought maybe also spit but spit appeared so far to be the least dangerous of the bodily fluids that might be exchanged during you know.
Because lesbians don’t as a general rule have penises.
I have since been disabused of this and any other inaccurate notions I began reciting in my head as possible ways to educate my mother on the hows and whys of gay and or lesbian sex and which combinations of which body parts made it more or less likely to catch anything but at the time I was still quite busy learning some very basic things about human sexuality and gender so the vagaries mostly waited in the wings yet.
Because lesbians don’t squirt semen inside each other. (Also as a general rule and not something I had thought about with great discretion yet and so it seemed plain enough right then.)
Because is it not obvious that the question is not why are not all homosexuals sick with AIDS yet but what particular exchanges and interchanges are most likely to spread infection of various types not just this one?
What do you think lesbians do with one another? Do you know how sex works for different people and for different combinations of people and preferences and past present and future modifications and past present and future injuries of all sorts not only those involving down there?
Do you know the most probable routes of transmission of the AIDS pathogen (was it a virus yet? Without a precise time for the memory I cannot say)?
Do you know how contagion works? Do you know how many different types of microbes there are and how many different ways they can make their way from one body to another? Do you know that germs of all sorts do not ask for a body’s sexual orientation–or religious beliefs pertaining thereto–before deciding whether that body is habitable?
But there was no chance at all I was actually going to engage my mother in a frank conversation about gay and lesbian sex or the objectively amoral nature of infectious disease. How would I explain that I had acquired this esoteric knowledge, for one. Why do you know what lesbians do. I did not want to have to answer that question or even try to wave it off.
I did not know many gay men when I first came out but because Lisa’s mom went to drag bars for fun lots of their friends were gay men, some nellies, some queens, all just slightly older than I was and almost all of them had by then shared HIV with each other whether or not it was even possible to know this yet. They were finding out, one by one, when I showed up.
It was just the way it was. I mean it was reality in that way that reality tosses aside your disbelief and your terror and plods on as though time were not a thing that passed with any more or less urgency or not in response to animal wishings or wishings not. And so do you then adjust your pace to its agonal indifference or at least you try because no matter what else you try you cannot demand that time pay attention to you or if you do it will not listen even as it meticulously arranges itself around all of you all of us and allow us slip through without effort: by the time I got to know any of this group of people they were adjusting with all unwilling haste to the question one hardly had to ask at this point. That if they were not positive yet they probably would be soon and from there their lives played out too quickly again and again one right after the other in front of each other each and all of the survivors at whatever point there were too many of them to keep good track. Who was just in the hospital. Who had to go last night. Who might not come home from the hospital. Who had pneumonia and who just got his latest test result back after not feeling well for just that much too long for comfort and yeah. Yeah.
Does his family know.
They aren’t taking his calls.
Will they visit.
Of course not.
As it was: I cannot actually say how it felt to watch almost your entire circle of friends and lovers get sick and die one by one in the course of just a few years and I do not know what it is like to see this going on and not even be able to wonder if your turn will be next because it might not be this time but it will at some time not far enough away. Myself I was lucky to some degree or another not only because I was both a lesbian and just starting out just young enough to see just far enough ahead of time but also because I was locked away so deeply in my own neurophysiological labyrinth that I was not about to develop any close attachments to anyone who was not Lisa. And so her losses, her mother’s losses, and the continued chronic loss of an entire social circle were none of them direct losses for me.
Or not in that sort of what is happening to my friends way or what is going to become of all of us we cannot be dying already we only just figured out how to live sort of way. I did not personally experience that particular sort of grief or terror or despair: AIDS was not personal for me or at least not deeply interpersonal. I knew people who lost many friends. I did not lose many friends myself but I did see many acquaintances fade away and disappear long before I could have hoped to have known them.
Which is not to say that none of their deaths affected me. Like most everything else, it would be years before I noticed that I had noticed way much more than I noticed noticing at the time. I took it in the looks and the conversations and the rage spoken and not and even the utter stark realization that we as queers were not going to be given any quarter even for some time after we began to fight for it like a condemned people who could not possibly lose. I filed all of that away archivist of my own memories carefully placing them together without leaving any prints. As though I could keep all that was at a distance long enough to catalog and shelve it before anyone asked me why I was taking such care to begin with. I would not have been able to answer.
Except that what I did know was that I was a queer. After all that time of trying so hard not to be. I was. And I knew that I was surrounded by large communities full of people who not only thought that AIDS was our just punishment but said so out loud as many different ways as possible every chance they got even and especially if they thought there might be any queers within earshot.
I listened as tacit cultural assumption became iterated and reiterated public commonplace: that queers’ lives were not worth the trouble of emergency funding or particularly urgent mobilization of medical research for a quickly spreading illness with a one hundred percent fatality and rapid as the death of mayflies and I watched as the federal government went to great ethical contortions to justify doing quite nearly nothing for several years while so many members of this new family I had come out into got sick and died and got sick and died and got sick and died and got sick and died.
That thing they say about how Ronald Reagan never said the word AIDS but instead made only the most oblique of references to lifestyles and choices while tsk’ing pitiously and clearly implying that they had brought it on themselves after all so what could he possibly do besides insinuate that the dead and dying deserved most of all to be dead and dying and not at all to be the focus of any effort to keep them from becoming the dead and dying?
That’s how true it is: he performed his moral disdain where one might expect compassion in the face of death every time a camera was trained on him and we watched the audience nod along because they knew what he did not have the balls to say out loud: that god was killing the faggots and it was about time. In its place we saw his viciously polite concern for the decent men and women would never dream of violating the natural order of things or if they did dream or if they dreamed and went on to violate, would take their death penalty lumps as the only just possibility in a universe of strict propriety. Certainly we had no moral duty to those who were less accepting of universal laws.
Which was understood to mean god’s laws but back then there was still some awareness at high levels that god would probably be non-partisan if they were to reveal themself.
We guessed that lesbians must be god’s chosen people but we said that only amongst ourselves for many of the same reasons that led me not to explain to my mother why AIDS was not a gay disease despite what current epidemiological statistics might suggest to someone who was already clear on whom god loved and whom god did not love.
God hates fags was not a wingnut opinion in the Bible Belt in 1983. It was a principle so obvious that nobody needed to add it as explanation for anything. I am not so sure that its plausibility has faded a great deal but I do not think about these things rationally because nothing about them is rational. But I will point out that if you believe only a nutcase would buy such a statement then all of our lives will be absolutely subject to irrationality as long as we continue to not to recognize it in ourselves. May it stumble next on the least life-denying motivations and desires it might meet with. Rather than last.
And soon please.
Charles may have been his name. I had a sister-in-law for a few short years and she worked. Somewhere. Somewhere there in the north suburbs of Atlanta she worked in an office or shop or studio or something and one of her coworkers was a gay man whose name may have been Charles.
That faggoty name he wished to be called in place of the properly masculine Charles was one of the primary points of derision wasn’t it. Or the faggoty version of his name if it was not Charles but something else similarly variable.
Chas was tendered with a roll of the eyes followed quickly by Charles and so firmly that Chas’ claims to ordinary personhood were immediately extinguished lest anyone get the idea that faggots were due the regard to call them by their chosen names. Chas… Charles! was disciplined into straight masculinity in over-dinner conversation way too often.
Mainly I did not live at my parents’ house after about April or May 1983 but I was not formally proclaimed to have left home until that October. In between and for some time after I would occasionally go home for dinner andor laundry. Sometimes Lisa came along with me. We were together constantly but I never came out to my family. When exactly they figured out what was going on is still a mystery to me but probably once Lisa and I got on the airplane and moved across the country together to Seattle I imagine any doubt was erased but that was not going to happen for another four and a half years. I do not know precisely when unthinkable hunch became dread suspicion turned into somewhat desperate hope evaporated into sacred vestiges of doubt but surely those were no longer viable by the time we landed around midday in November to become suddenly introduced to a winter that more closely deserved its name than it ever had in Georgia.
I do not know for sure but I did sometimes wonder if my sister-in-law talked about Charles on purpose. A birthday maybe or some other office party and Charles had brought a cake and nobody touched it nobody wanted to get AIDS from a cake some old queer had made. That is the only real story I recall the rest were a series of eager snorts of disgust at the queer mostly unaccompanied by anything that was worth the narrative bother to provide them with a rationale. No rationale was needed: everyone already knew all about those dirty diseased queers and their kitchens filled with AIDS measuring spoons and AIDS serving dishes and AIDS coffee cups and AIDS drinking straws. Sometimes instead of baking an AIDS cake the queer would volunteer to bring some of his AIDS paper plates or AIDS plastic forks and then nobody knew what to do because there was nothing to eat the food with he was so inconsiderate not to just keep everything to himself in his little AIDS house.
I do not recall whether anyone knew Charles to be HIV positive for fact and it is very unlikely that he would have revealed his status if he was. Not there. Not then. But it did not matter at all: being openly gay was enough to drive most everyone else to jump at conclusions that would most fully nourish their most carefully tended fears so that to display them overblown and irrational was not only pardonable but a necessary, elaborate act of communal cleansing. The relief at not having to consider themselves vulnerable to or worse deserving of mortality filled living rooms and houses and warehouses and districts until anyone knowing themselves to be queer could find no adequate footing quite nearly anywhere they might try to stand.
The territory I was ever going to be able to call home had been shrinking for some time but it was not until after I knew for certain that my lottery card was indeed at least as improbable as I had intuited for as long as I had been able to intuit anything and that it might turn out to be even more improbable but for now yes I was a homosexual it was at that point or after the point at which I said this and it was true I am gay that was when home as a feeling and as a known place was shifted so far from where it had been first nominated that for a very long time I could not begin to tell you where home was but it was clearly very far away and on such an obscure route and so small that no map worthy of the name would be able to chart it.
And this was also just how it was. It was not alarming to me for home to lose most if not all of its sense. It had been draining away for a very long time already. Nor was it alarming for me to spend most of my energy folding up my thoughts and reactions and stowing them securely where they could not bother anyone whose bother was for me a terror not of physical harm but of more explicit castings out than a disgusted but generic and imprecise “queers!”.
Which itself is odd because I knew I was a priori cast out and had known this for most of my life but my survival had depended so long on not noticing anything that even now I exercise almost painful vigilance over any- and everything that might be best left unremarked. To speak at all I must first meet that vigilance with something like sufficient urgency or desire or necessity to stand it down. The first methods I discovered were all violent to some degree although the violence was not always apparent even when directed only at myself.
As most of it was.