When I was in my late 20s, everyone around me was dying of AIDS. I was in Narcotics Anonymous, coming out of a foggy, decade-long stretch of lie-cheat-use drugs-repeat. Everything hurt. My body. My mind. I needed a crane to lift myself out of bed in the mornings. The only thing I had going for me was the adrenaline of the fight for the lives of people around me. Once I got vertical in the mornings, the terror I felt about possibly being late for work, disappointing my brilliant comrades, not pulling my weight in a Herculean battle against homo-hate—it got me out the door every day.
I had two parallel things going on that would shape my life and my activism for the next 30 years. First, NA meetings. Every damn day, I sat my ass in an NA meeting. In Washington, D.C. in 1990, this meant I was often the only, or among one or two, white addicts in a meeting with dozens upon dozens of this city’s native sons, daughters, and folks otherly gendered. Black, queer NA was the great blessing of my life. The only church I’ve ever felt at home in. Every day, stories of Black D.C. life, Black gay life, Black dyke life, Black transgender life, Black city worker life, Black Southern extended-family life (Is everyone here from North Carolina?) poured into the room. And every day or two, someone left the room and later died, leaving me with their generosity, struggle, and belief in me. Every day, I was coming back to life, just a tiny bit, while everyone around me loved and laughed extravagantly and died in a country bent on killing them.
The second parallel thing? Pandemics. In the white gay world, it was AIDS. But on the streets of D.C., it was crack, it was policing, it was generations upon generations of heroin (you know, opioids). And for Black D.C., it was also AIDS. Every Friday morning, the Washington Blade would come out, and its centerfold would be filled with obituaries of largely white gay men, ages 20 to 60, who only days and months before had been walking among us, throwing blood on the steps of the FDA, downing martinis at Trumpets or Tracks or JR’s. The Black gay dead in my life often went unrecorded there. Instead, we went to memorial services in Baptist churches, holding distraught mothers or sisters or aunties or grandmas. Sometimes, we said, “gay,” sometimes the word was never spoken—but often, we donned T-shirts with our beloveds standing among extended family in a blurry shot that was captioned: God’s Gift.
Every day, death. Every day, life. For a while there, for the white gay men and the organizations that their money funds, the blinders came off. The reality that while we were not all in the same boat, we were all in the same water, and that water was killing us. The day that the white gay men of Hollywood and the white gay men of Wall Street were refused admission to the top hospitals, were left in their homes by paramedics who refused to touch them—that was a huge day for the movement. All of the things that had been killing Black and Brown queers for decades suddenly came into focus, became top priority. People have called all kinds of white gay people “the Martin Luther King” of the gay movement—but no one, no one touched off a bigger fire, a brighter, more radical consciousness than those bigoted EMTs and those cisgender, white hospital administrators in the early days of AIDS. Suddenly, even the most closeted, socially acceptable, moneyed gays were all in, on the barricades, fighting with police, the medical establishment, funeral directors, their parents.
Between 1990 and 1995, more than 50 people who loved me died. Many, like me, were just getting clean, and like me, they had had a lot of unprotected sex in the years leading up to their last run. But I was having sex largely in Central Pennsylvania in the late ’80s, among hapless cisgender guys and a smattering of nascent lesbians. Not very much of it was good, or lasting, or deserving of a repeat. By contrast, the members of my NA freshman class were having sex in small enclaves of men they knew—had grown up with or partied with or worked alongside. In the world of pandemics, their sex lives were the opposite of social distancing, their networks were relatively compact and connected. And so, one invisibly HIV-positive person passed the virus to another, and they all got sick in quick succession. Dwayne and Jacks. Russell and John. James. Little Van. Ted. Rafael. The legendary Tina T. And all along the way, they sat beside me as the virus took them, holding my hand while I cried my way through my pitiful stories, hugging me, dragging me out to coffee, taking my calls in the middle of the night. It took me over a year to really start to believe I was an addict, and when I confessed this at my first anniversary, the whole room exploded in laughter. Never have I ever been in a community so willing to love me in spite of my utter insanity.
So here we are. In the ensuing 30 years, my Black NA community in D.C. has survived massive dislocation of their families via gentrification, persistent unemployment and underemployment, brutal policing and incarceration, and terrible, expensive, inaccessible physical and mental health care. And now COVID-19. Among my white friends, people have a story here and there. But in my NA community, it’s another holocaust. Unrelenting.
And all I can think about is my lost beloveds. How much they wanted to live. How indifferent so many of the systems we live under have been to them, and how little the way we have lived since honors them, the horrific, violent loss of them. The theft of their genius, their love, partnerships, children and grandchildren. And if there is anything about this current, outrageous, and once again completely preventable loss of life that gives me hope, it’s this: Just like that moment that touched off the most impactful and effective marshalling of queer outrage we have ever seen—it’s just so obvious that we cannot continue as we have. The world is stopped in its tracks. Big Oil is dying. Massive unemployment has spurred worldwide talk about universal basic income and health care. Smog has lifted, and we can see horizons in the distance; mountain goats are running through the streets of a tiny town in Wales. As I watch spring blooming off my balcony, I wonder how the wildlife in the grove behind my apartment will fare with so much less roadkill, so much less intrusion.
And I think about Dwayne, sitting next to always-crying me at the Queer Triangle recovery club on a Tuesday night, his face already sinking into itself, but his eyes bright. Throwing his arms around me and saying: Don’t give up before the miracle happens. I didn’t.