If you listen closely you can still hear the sounds of faraway snare drums and marching bands. Occasionally a cymbal crashes. Those sounds are the remnants of the Protease Parade that high-stepped its way through the AIDS community over the last year.
As we pack up our folding lawn chairs, though, we are left with some unfortunate truths about AIDS. They litter the streets like stubborn debris, while we turn away and leave the job to street cleaners that never arrive.
Here are a few pieces of refuse that haven't been swept away.
- There's an elephant in the bars that few people will talk about.
In bar parking lots at closing, or about that time on the gay phone lines or in the ubiquitous "men 4 men" chat rooms on the Internet, one question repeats as incessantly as a Donna Summer beat.
"Are you partying?"
Many of us are drowning our grief or masking our wounds -- or just making up time from the frightening last decade -- through weekend evenings that begin with lines of white powder, or a joint, or the first in a long round of drinks.
Our service providers are dumbfounded. Substance abuse agencies and AIDS care organizations look across the fence at each other, warily, sometimes just to muse that at least their own battle isn't as tough as the other. We've all got our hands full and yet the two issues are inextricably bound.
And make no mistake about it, gay men who sit in judgment of drug addicts with AIDS -- their transmission route is illegal in every state, we think to ourselves -- are ignoring the powder-laced sty in our own eyes.
- Viralcentricity sucks! And you shouldn't have to be positive to get away with saying that.
I'm tired of the contention that you have to have HIV to know "what it's like." If you're not positive, your integrity as an activist or an AIDS professional or as your basic battle-scarred, freaked-out member of our community is somehow suspect -- or at least less "worthy." Tell that to my HIV negative, widowed brother.
I don't really care if my AIDS leaders are positive or not. I only care that they fight to alleviate and then end this epidemic. To suggest that certain people haven't been "washed in the blood" and cannot adequately advocate for us is absurd and viralcentric. It's also led to worthless token appointments for groups that deserve better.
I'm HIV positive so you have permission to agree with me. Now can we take care of our HIV negative brothers and sisters and order up fresh helpings of those HIV negative support groups?
- Nobody wants to know your HIV status after midnight, Thursday through Sunday.
There's more grass-roots support for "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" than anyone would believe. Which would be perfectly fine with me if we were all having sex as if our partners were positive. But we're not.
Thoughtful writers are battling for our sexual souls at this very moment. Gabriel Rotello's book "Sexual Ecology" argues that the party is over and gay men need to examine our need for multiple partners and then cut it the hell out. Eric Rofes, in "Reviving the Tribe," confronts the shaming attitude of HIV prevention education, contending that younger gay men aren't capable of continuing a "state of crisis" and want their sex lives back within the context of AIDS.
In a recent Advocate editorial, Queer visionary Larry Kramer bemoaned gay men's fascination with All Things Penis and wished gay writers could get their minds out of the gutter. The confusing cacophony of voices leads me to believe strongly in... whomever I read most recently. But I do wish Larry would discover the literary, thoughtful delights of authors such as Fenton Johnson, Chris Glaser and Peter Gomes.
- Romanticizing a gruesome death is harder than it looks. As in, "it'll get better," "time heals all wounds," and "try to remember him as he was."
A few nights ago my late, great best friend Lesley appeared to me in a dream, the first such visit in months. I knew he was dead, but was thrilled to see him. I hugged his body close and it responded like cold rubber. He gamely answered my questions about what it felt like to be dead and how he had gotten out of the ground, and then he shared a secret. He leaned into me conspiratorially, and said, "you don't know how to get out of the coffin at first. But the bodies around you have already figured it out, you see? So they come callin' on you, and reach in to tickle your toes."
I reacted to him with only mild surprise. "Really? That must be awful."
"Scary as shit," he said, and nodded his head slowly in agreement with himself. "Sometimes they even poke their heads in. That's when you better learn to get out yourself. But..." he whispered closer to me, "you figure out how. You figure it out..."
My old friend then offered to demonstrate by digging a hole in the dirt floor of my basement. I declined, shortly before running screaming from the room.
Even my dreams of Lesley are horror shows, like the last six months of his life.
- AIDS is not a gift. A Mercedes is a gift.
It used to be that only people with AIDS viewed their disease as some sort of gift from above that pulled their life together. Now even HIV negative folks -- wannabe's -- are taking higher risks, believing either the virus is the key to inner peace or the crisis is over. All of these scenarios give me the willies.
An AIDS culture has been created and I am part of it. But that is not to say that I give power to the disease or to the stubborn, evil virus which does its footwork. I credit myself and my community.
AIDS did not break my drug habit. I did that. AIDS did not re-organize my priorities and my values. It did not create a sense of integrity in me that I hadn't possessed before. AIDS did not change my attitudes and behavior about sexuality or recreational drugs.
AIDS is not an opportunity to re-assess, a chance to reconsider, an occasion to reflect, an excuse to display real emotion, a time for forgiveness, or a shot at redemption.
Mark S. King is Director of Education for AID Atlanta, the largest AIDS service agency in the southeast United States, and also serves as Chair of the Mayor's AIDS Advisory Board. He is currently completing his first book, A Place Like This, about his experiences as an HIV positive gay man.