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Stonewall: 50 years and counting…


On this fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising I share my experience with AIDS.

In the early 1980s I was living in San Francisco, in the Castro District, which was one of the epicenters of the epidemic. The gay press (free newspapers like The Sentinel and the Bay Area Reporter) were reporting on some strange diseases which were popping up in gay men in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. At first, they called it the “gay cancer,” because many of the men were diagnosed with Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Later it was termed GRID: Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency. Only later was AIDS decided upon as the official terminology.

Gay men in San Francisco—my community—were dying like flies. Fear and panic were palpable. Science couldn’t determine the exact cause, but it sure looked like a sexually-transmitted disease. As things got worse and worse, and there was no official response to the disease, volunteer efforts arose in the Castro. One of these was Shanti Project. People could volunteer to help those afflicted with the disease. I decided to join, in the Summer of 1983.

It was a very busy time in my life. I was going to graduate school fulltime, and working fulltime. Beyond that, I had become a serious runner, jogging every day, and was going to the gym four or five days a week. I also had found my first boyfriend, Eugene, a lovely, spiritual man, with whom I was living and trying to make a life. I didn’t have much spare time to devote to taking care of seriously ill, dying men. But it had to be done.

My first client was a man named Jim. When I first called on him, I was shocked; easily 6’2” in height, he’d wasted away to below 100 pounds. He was grateful to have help cleaning his apartment, shopping for food, and just talking; he was in desperate straits, and many of his former friends had deserted him. The most poignant moment for Jim and me was when he asked if we could lay down in his bed, and hold onto each other. “It’s been six months since I held a man in my arms,” he said, his eyes moist with tears. It wasn’t a sexual request; it was simply the request of a frightened man for human contact.

A million thoughts raced through my head. Nobody knew how AIDS was spread. The Shanti Project people, basing their conclusions on the latest knowledge, told us volunteers they didn’t think that casual contact could be contagious, but they couldn’t guarantee it. For me, the rubber hit the road: what to do?

There was no way to deny Jim his request. He was so sad, so scared, so wonderful. We spooned on his bed, him in back, holding onto me for dear life. I decided I wouldn’t end it until he did. We lay there for perhaps fifteen minutes, when he thanked me. A month later, my manager at Shanti called to tell me Jim was dead. Did I want another client?

I did. My manager told me that she had in mind for me a guy named Gary, who was a bigwig in Shanti Project. He was on the Board of Directors; he was a well-known political figure in San Francisco gay politics. He could be difficult, she warned me: demanding and peremptory. But she thought I could handle it.

I went to his apartment regularly. He would almost always be in bed, watching T.V. or reading. I don’t think we exchanged two words for the six months I helped him. It was the way he wanted it; I wasn’t there to chat but to assist him however he wanted. I laundered his sweat-soaked sheets, washed his dishes, cleaned his toilet, vacuumed the rugs. Then one day, when I was at work, came another phone call: Gary had died.

I myself never came down with AIDS.  But a lot of people I knew did, and died from it. It was a terrible time, made worse by the likes of hideous haters like Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell and the rest of the homophobic “Christian” evangelical community. I learned during those years who the enemy was. They’re still out there, now morphed into Trump Republicans but no less hateful, harmful and dangerous.

Nearly forty years ago I made it my life’s work to challenge these horrible people. We in the LGBTQ community have come a long way, with gay marriage now legal and gay people allowed to serve openly in the military. But we still face massive challenges. Anita Bryant is now a mere factoid from the past and Jerry Falwell ls dead, thankfully; but the homophobes are on the rise, empowered by the hater-in-chief, Donald Trump. These people will never stop. Neither will I, and neither, thank God, will the tens of millions of gay people and their friends, who will resist returning to the bad old days. So, on this important anniversary, I say “THANK YOU!” to all the LGBTQ people who put their lives on the line in the struggle for equality. And I ask younger LGBTQ people, who did not go through what we did, to please not take your civil rights for granted. What government has granted us, government may take away, if we’re not eternally vigilant

  1. I am moved by your heart-felt words…

  2. A lifetime of oppression, magnified by the current reaction against LGBT people led by this fascist regime, has brought me to this point.

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