All my teachers died of AIDS
I was never taught how to love, or what it might mean for someone like me to feel desire. For a long time, I didn’t even know if there was a
word for what I was and what I felt. By the time I came of age, there was
nobody left to teach me. And none of the voices that I heard sounded like
The first time I saw queer desire between two men, it was holed away upstairs in my room at sixteen. I was watching Queer as Folk, not porn, although it might as well have
been. Stuart Alan Jones. He’s looking down at me, like the face of
God. Looking down but not going
down. The feeling deep within me remained something that escaped
definition for a long time, acting as a heavy weight, the feeling of carrying two kinds of
desire in my hands at the same time.
Stuart drives a cheap jeep that’s been tagged with the words
QUEERS in a furious red paint, but that doesn’t stop him from driving last night’s boy, all of fifteen, to school the next day. He was only a year older than me, and I was sure that that
meant something. Maybe I just wanted to be like him, to be looked
down on by Stuart Alan Jones, like all the other boys would have wanted when it was on TV, at the
end of the nineties.
The only thing it taught me was what rimming was. But even my fictional teachers, if I could call them that, couldn’t avoid being
touched by tragedy. Drugs at a party lead to the death of a supporting character. I have
to google him to find out that his name is
Phil. It hurts to have forgotten this detail, my first understanding of the spectre of death that seemed to define the queer lives I was discovering at the time. But the pain feels vague and
distant, a memory from another life. This pain, this echo of mourning begins to feel normal, the more time I spend understanding the fact that this kind of thing could never have been limited to fiction. Reading essays whose titles are the numbers of those diagnosed
1,112 and Counting
2,339 and Counting
They come from newspaper pieces from the early 80s, where, in the space of a few months, the number of people infected with AIDS in the United States had increased by more than double. A few years later, in January of 87, their writer, Larry Kramer, would describe a “doomsday scenario”
Next week 274 people will die from AIDS. Next week, 374 more people will become infected with the killer virus. In four years’ time, 270,000 people will have AIDS. Of those, 179,000 will have died.
Being in possession of numbers like these makes it impossible to do anything but grieve. Even if the grief doesn’t always feel real; mourning en masse like that makes it seem far away, makes it easy to forget that all of the 179,000 – and counting – people in the Doomsday Scenario had names, hopes, dreams, futures they were robbed of.
A generation after these essays were written, I sit in a theatre for seven hours and watch the
passing of a torch used to light so many torch songs, trying to find the way to a future at least a little free of death. If, as this Inheritance teaches us, with a nod to the idea that Howard’s End was only the beginning, that
one may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister, or with
Toby’s emails to his boyfriend, openings that are
dashed off, as if it doesn’t matter how you begin, then I may as well begin with
Hunter’s list of names, stitched into a ball gown, worn by a mannequin on the
ground floor of the Hayward Gallery. 25,000 names, all of them lost to AIDS. That’s all this could
ever be, a search for a new beginning, an attempt to step out of the
shadow of the plague, the fracture that has been the beginning, and the
end, of decades of history.
A friend tells me that my writing is like a broken
mirror. A series of lines and fragments, all of them returning to the same central point, the smashed surface that forces reflection through a twisted lens, the one thing that
changes how everything else gets seen.
That’s how it feels to survive a plague, to be living after an outbreak that claimed a
generation. A break in the middle of what should be my history, a black hole consuming
everything around it, refusing to let the light in, refusing to acknowledge anything except the
absence left in its wake.
If the dead students in Les Mis are a grief that can’t be spoken, then there are no words for a loss like this. And if words are all we have, then this is the
silence of the grave. I’ve never known if words alone are good enough, if they can ever be the right way to define something that seems to exist
beyond definition. If words that define values and numbers, like
decimate, can’t come to close to the scale of this, then what good are words?
1. Kill, destroy, or remove a large portion of.
“the inhabitants of the country had been decimated.”
kill one in every ten of (a group of people, originally a mutinous Roman legion) as a punishment for the whole group.
“The man who is to determine whether it be necessary to decimate a large body of mutineers.”
The decisions made in the wake of the epidemic, or outbreak, or plague, whichever word best tries but still
fails to define this history, was never about deciding who
dies, but instead about deciding who is worthy of being
kept alive. Listening to an automated voice reading an essay published in a magazine that has
rejected my writing, I hear the briefest mention of the death of
Rock Hudson. I’m told that to
to be heard you had to be
dead. And a
movie star. And a
friend of the President. And even he didn’t manage to stay
alive. Nobody heard the truth about him until after he
died. One may as well begin with Dale Olson’s telegrams to the White House. The beginning of the story doesn’t matter when the ending is inevitable, when the question is
when instead of if, when this is the only story that anyone thinks is worth telling, an endless testament, an attempt to find the words for something that goes beyond language, or the
numbers of the diagnosed. This story, and the countless ones that reflect it, like the fragments of
broken mirror, men dying because there’s no medicine or help from the government, no compassion or understanding, now lives in the only place it could ever take root; in the
bloodstream of history.
Sam is a writer, artist, and editor. Their poetry and experimental essays have been published both in print and online, including in the Pilot Press anthology Modern Queer Poets. They are one of the founding editors of Powder, a queer zine of art and literature.