Like tens of thousands of other gay men, I live a haunted existence. I can't go anywhere in Atlanta without encountering the ghost of a friend or acquaintance who died during the first 15 years of the AIDS epidemic, which officially began 30 years ago in June.
I sit at a table at Starbucks and gaze out the window at the Ansley Forest Apartments. During the late '80s through the mid-'90s, I was often there spending time with friends who were too sick to get out of bed.
At Ansley Mall, it was common to see skeletal figures walking in slow motion across the parking lot. I often wanted to look the other way as they approached, calling my name in a hoarse voice. Because the disease advanced so rapidly, many men did not seem to realize how their appearance had changed. When their awareness caught up with the reality, many hid in their apartments waiting to die. One day a friend died and I quickly rolled his wheelchair to the apartment of another friend who couldn't afford to buy one. It turned out he had died the day before. Those who couldn't wait often killed themselves. I was asked several times to participate in assisted suicides.
I would not wish my memories on anyone today. But, having lived through the holocaust, I was shocked last month to read the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's new estimates of HIV infections in America. It's worrisome enough that new infections continue at the rate of 50,000 a year, of which 61 percent are among men who have sex with men. But the rate of infection among gay men younger than 30 increased by a third between 2006 and 2009. Infections among young African-American men have increased an astonishing 48 percent.
My intent is not to lecture young gay men about the necessity of using condoms, but to share memories of two people I loved during a time when being gay still meant being marginalized by society.
My first partner's name was Rick. We met in Augusta in the late '70s, not long after I ended a brief, foolish marriage to a woman. After my divorce, I began to experiment with the sexual impulses from which I'd hidden throughout my adolescence and early 20s.
The transition was extremely difficult. By identifying as gay, I knew I was joining a minority whose way of loving was not only illegal in Georgia but still broadly pathologized by psychiatry and demonized by the church. There would be no children in my future. I worried that my parents and longtime friends would reject me. And yet I knew I was incapable of hiding any longer.
I began drinking heavily to medicate my anxiety, going out nearly every night. I met Rick, an artist who had just finished college, at one of Augusta's two gay clubs. I was sitting at the bar ranting about the cruelty of love and the cookbook Alice B. Toklas wrote out of economic necessity after her lover, Gertrude Stein, died. Rick, who was at the other end of the bar, moved beside me and told me in his soft voice, "I have that cookbook." I was amazed that anyone that beautiful was even talking to me.
His apartment was hung with paintings of the biomorphic forms that fascinated him. The dining room table was a work of art he'd built himself from found wood. The kitchen was like a mad scientist's laboratory full of colored liquids and weird tools. A few days later we went to a carnival in North Augusta to see my first freak show. I fell for Rick while Tom the Two-Faced Man turned the burned half of his face toward us and screamed, "There but for the grace of God go you!" Tom became a symbol to Rick and me of the virtue of revealing one's oddity.
During that transitional time, I photographed everything, and I took pictures of Rick the morning after our first night together. Thirty-odd years later, I still have the photos, but can seldom bear to look at them.
Rick and I had a difficult relationship from the outset, principally because I was new to gay life. I was both hungry to explore that world but constantly afraid I would be outed to the owners of the small-town newspaper where I was editor. I had so much anxiety that virtually every time Rick touched me in bed during the first few months, I had an asthma attack.
As terrified and drunk as I often was, I struggled to accept myself. I started seeing a psychiatrist at the Medical College of Georgia soon after my divorce, but he quickly let me know he didn't approve of homosexuality. Next, I saw a female intern who blamed my ex-wife for turning me off to straight sex. She offered to have sex with me to cure me.
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