Tim McCarthy was so many things. Above all, he was one hell of a singular presence.
He was a long-term survivor of HIV and a devoted marijuana user fighting for legalization. He was a brilliant and flaming queer who came out as a teenager and went back into the closet to join the military to get funds for college. He wanted everyone to have good queer sex in way that was good for them. He spoke non-stop and had an unmistakable laugh.
He was a computer whiz who unloaded a successful company to get the freedom to live as his true self, settling into a dream house of his design on a hill by the bay in Truro, Massachusetts, up the road from his beloved Provincetown, where he came in 1993 prepared to die of AIDS.
But fundamental and central to Tim was his passion for documenting queer lives.
I don't imagine there's a single person who met Tim for more than a few minutes without learning that he had been to every continent on earth with his video camera, capturing footage of queers in our movements, in our art, in our lives, from massive historical events to private moments together in our homes.
In recent years, he'd come to focus on his work with LGBTQ people in Uganda who are fighting for their lives in a place where their very existence is illegal. He posed as an ex-gay to infiltrate a rally with President Yoweri Museveni and helped to create the documentary Voices of the Abasiyazzi, which features footage created by queer Ugandans themselves.
He picked up his first video camera after finding out he had HIV, as he explained to me in 2014:
"When I tested positive, I got on a jet plane and decided I would do everything that I wanted to do before I died. … April 28 of 1990, I got my first video camera. And I went to that Radical Faerie gathering. And that's where my relationship with the Faeries, and the camera, and AIDS all really came to be into the essence of my life -- which is to travel the world in search of LGBTI culture.
"[It was] the medicine for me … because, at that time, to synopsize it, the religious circumstances were: God's revenge. That comes from an American capitalist Christian point of view. So, to get empirical evidence, you go to non-Christian, non-capitalist, non-American places, and see if we live. If we do, then, ergo, we are natural. OK? So, please.
"The emotional experience of being [outside the U.S.], and going there, and finding our sisters and brothers there, and understanding it, that pushed me to my limits. It gave me something to live outside of myself. You want the key to medicine? The key to any fucking medicine is to always retain something outside of your medical circumstances. If you get sucked into your disease, you're dead."
Tim died unexpectedly last October, just as legalization of marijuana in his state was about to become real. He was remembered well and deeply locally, with a packed, lengthy memorial service soon after his passing and a ritual this summer where friends and family released his ashes into Cape Cod Bay.
In addition to his personal presence and drive, he was a relentless and irreplaceable documentarian of local life in Provincetown, which hosts a rich culture of LGBTQ art, theater, and politics.
"Most things are going unrecorded," said Jay Critchley, one of his longtime friends and collaborators in Provincetown. "There are often comments in public meetings that we miss seeing Tim at the art events particularly that he would cover, the theater. No one is doing it on a regular committed basis. Certainly, there's individuals, and public television is doing some, community television. But no, there's a real void."
To help fill the void left by his activism, the Tim Fund will help put some resources behind local activists. Founded by a core of Tim's friends in Provincetown, the fund will award $2,000 to a Tim McCarthy Human Rights Champion each year.
After many years as an HIV activist, I struggle with the grief of losing so many people I respected and loved, although we weren't the closest of family or friends. My grief feels selfish. But I've come to recognize that when I feel this grief, I am also grieving those I don't even know, or know how to mourn, those who have passed from this life without notice.
And that's what makes it vitally important that his work, his videos and interviews, his collections of queer artifacts and art are publicly available to give life to our queer ancestors and kin who crossed the path of his camera.
Tim lived for queers. He saw us. And we will miss him and the reflection of ourselves.
I share this remembrance in gratitude to those who have honored his memory and will continue to do so through the Tim Fund. And I offer to his family and friends who are taking on the massive undertaking of finding an accessible and accountable home for the huge body of his work and collections, to know that I am one of many who are here for you and ready to help.
Live Your Life
Tim wasn't just behind the scenes. He was a charmer, and a forceful speaker who knew how to be in front of the lens. He spoke emphatically, looking right at the viewer, in the ways we learned to do in ACT UP.
And what he often emphasized is that he wanted you to live your best life as a person living with HIV or as a queer person.
Interviewed shortly after the 2016 election about how LGBTQ people needed to respond to the election of Trump, Tim immediately and forcefully responded, "Have sex, have lots and lots and lots of sex. Sex has always been a revolutionary act, especially queer sex. It both honors the protest that's required to stand up to the world around us, but it also honors and validates who we are."
Tim believed in documentation and memory and storytelling. He was working on a memoir of his life; I enjoyed hearing stories he was crafting during a workshop at the local Fine Arts Work Center a few years ago and hope that whatever he had time to write will make its way to the public.
Tim believed in the future; he worked generatively -- he was filled with ideas, had a remarkably high rate of pulling many ideas off, and had a course mapped out for years to come -- and he worked intergenerationally, with a passion for giving young people the skills he'd put to use.
"It's so hard to put into words the effect that he had on us while we were growing up. But he never treated us like we were kids; he treated us like tiny adults," his niece Kim Hermenze told me.
"It was my first experience talking about anything political -- he talked about politics when we were very young. But he never put his views on us, asking what we thought, and why we thought it, and what does that mean for us, and what does that look like," shared Hermenze, who is now 35.
He mentored young people as videographers; Luke Hadley, one of his mentees, has a memorial tattoo on his back with a silhouette featuring Tim's unmistakable spiked hair. And, still young, Hadley is already passing it on to the next generation -- he created and shared a video in Tim's memory that offers fulfillment to their idea of enabling young children to take flight as the superheroes they are.
In their youth, Hermenze and her sister Tracy Thai worked with Tim in the summer to help digitize some of his videos. Thai is the executor of his will and is the central person leading the search for a home for Tim's archives.
Hermenze told me that they welcome help in identifying possibilities for this tremendous undertaking, and that they are committed to finding options that would make the materials open to broad public use.
"He immediately saw the worth of technology," Hermenze told me. "I literally remember him with one of those giant VHS that weighed probably 400 pounds on his shoulder. As soon as that opportunity came out, he was capturing everything he could -- not just big moments, little moments, little conversations. … He was very organized. His tapes reflect that in a sense, but there's also a crazy amount of them. … Going through it is going to be more things than we even know."
We need not underestimate the challenge of this undertaking. Some of the materials are fragile and may need restoration. Even cataloging the tremendous collection takes resources. Who will step forward to ensure that this international queer treasure is safeguarded and made available to our communities?
Like so many things I don't remember from many years in the HIV movement, I can't picture when I first met Tim. But I clearly recall when I was re-acquainted with Tim in 2010, at a dinner with others who'd worked on How to Survive a Plague, a film focused on HIV treatment activism in the heyday of ACT UP New York. The film utilizes footage from Tim's massive collection; he was happy to tell the tale of rolling up to the Oscars in a car full of weed smoke when it was nominated for an award.
He'd designed it to offer space for low-cost rooms for local workers, who are the backbone of keeping the towns humming as housecleaners or gardeners but struggle to find affordable long-term housing. It features a big open kitchen, comfy living room, and a backyard of bird-friendly wildflowers and weeds.
The second floor was the heart of his castle: On one side is a master suite packed with queer art and a big, deep bathtub from which he could view the wide sky and Truro landscape below it; and on the other side is a large room serving as a climate-controlled video HQ, where he sat in a tall, rolling chair in front of a massive monitor, surrounded by a stunning amount of LGBTQ historical posters, art, countless VHS tapes, and other documentation of our lives worldwide.
When I had the good fortune of coming to town when Tim was there, he'd give me the low-down on his itinerary, covering everything from drag shows to town meetings to fundraisers for queer political candidates, which meant I often only caught a glimpse of him.
Even when I stayed there -- in a tiny, incredible turret up a spiral staircase that offered incredible views and just enough room for a not-quite-comfortable mattress -- I'd be lucky to have more than a short time with him, given his roster of capturing life in Provincetown.
I was happy to work on a few short word-on-the-street videos with him for TheBody, because I got to see him in action. I hope that his Vimeo account will soon be restored to public view -- this is just one of the many videos that has now become unavailable.
A Fire in the Night
I drove to Provincetown two days before Tim died.
The last hour of the road to tip of Cape Cod is a single, sleepy lane lined by wetlands, woods, and ponds interspersed with motels and campgrounds. I always have mixed feelings as I view the landscape passing by, with eagerness and gratitude that I will soon be in a gay-centric town surrounded by natural beauty, tempered by the suspicion that any number of factors could make it the last time I will find myself there.
But I couldn't see much of my surroundings as I drove through the outer Cape last October. I'd lingered a bit too long in Providence, Rhode Island, taking a break on the long drive from New York, and it was already growing dark and spitting chilly rain as I drove up the final spiral to the land's end.
I was envisioning a relatively solitary and reflective time, coming up to speak at an LGBT 12-step gathering just a few weeks after leaving my job. I'd been looking forward to quiet times in the fall beauty to consider what would come next in my life. Nonetheless, I was still pondering whether to reach out to a few friends who were in and out of town year round, including Tim.
Night had fallen a few towns before Provincetown. And suddenly the road was on fire and a tractor trailer was backing up toward my lane. As I drew closer, I could see that a power line was down and in flames, with nearby trees blazing and first responder vehicles accumulating.
I was shaken. And drove onward.
I went to where I was staying -- a tidy, small apartment whose residents were out of town -- then walked through the dark graveyard to a hook-up who had a massage table and hand-shucked us oysters from their friend's allotment. And then I walked home.
On Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, the day Tim died, I spoke under a big tent at the opening meeting of a gathering of hundreds of LGBTQ people in recovery in Provincetown. Afterward, I wanted to be alone, and walked down dark and windy streets to the borrowed apartment where I was staying.
Now, when I think of him, I think of the flames in the dark, and of windy, chilly autumn days and nights in a queer town by the bay. And I recommit myself to living my queer life, for whatever time I've got, with passion and joy and love for my people, my ancestors, and our generations to come.