Earlier this February I visited Chicago for the Midwestern Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Asexual/Ally College Conference (MBGLTACC). During the weekend we were there, the Alphawood Gallery housed an exhibit—Art-AIDS-America. The travelling exhibit displayed pieces of art created primarily by HIV+ gay men in the 1960s-80s.

1487469869372

 

Peter Staley, an active member in the fight against AIDS and a leader of the organization ACT UP New York, was a keynote speaker at the conference. Myself and a small group took the bus to the exhibit after witnessing Staley speak. Seeing the man I’d learned about in person was shocking for me. The exhibit was even more visceral.

We walked through the museum with a grim sense of kindred. Everyone in my group was queer; we all felt a strong connection with the history behind the AIDS epidemic. Each of us is an advocate. We have all worked with a variety of queer students, as well as others; we have heard stories and seen things that others outside of the community rarely have to witness. With this in mind, we felt we might have a small idea of what it was like during this time. And when we walked out, we walked out with stark images in our minds of the suffering experienced by those with AIDS and their loved ones.

There were many pieces that drew my attention. A bloody band aid taped to a piece of paper. Words and silhouettes projected on a wall moving through each other and sharing almost indecipherable poetry expressing the pain of the unknown. A newspaper printed with the words if he were alive today, if she were alive today, if they were alive today…

The one that struck me most: a metal fence with thousands of ribbons tied to its posts.

1487473648872

It’s cliché to say, but this piece stopped me in my tracks. It was so stark and accessible. I stared at it, tilting my head back and forth, taking it in.

I noticed a basket off to the side. It was full of ribbons and strips of fabric. All in faded, dusty colors that were once vibrant. I stepped closer and read the sign next to it—if you have lost a loved one to AIDS, please take a ribbon and tie it to the gate in their memory.

I looked back at the fence and its many posts completely covered in ribbons. I thought of this piece of art travelling from city to city, each time gaining hundreds of ribbons from shaking fingers.

I walked around the fence and took in the rows upon rows of ribbons, tied tightly and loosely, overlapping, crushing into each other, gently intertwined, long, short, fraying, stiff. I wondered what it must feel like—so many years ago, or today—to lose someone you love to the terrifying, stigmatized virus.

And for the first time in years, I remembered Chris.

Chris was my dad’s gay best friend. His story was about as cliché as it got, and either despite or because of this, it rang true with a passion. Though not the way my dad told it. He cited his memories in mocking tones the day he forced me to come out, sitting forward in my desk chair, eyes fixed on me. It was March of 2013. He used the story to prove how gross and yet insignificant it was to be gay. He used the story of someone close to him to disrespect my community and my identity.

Listening in the moment, I was struck with fear and shame. I was terrified of being mocked, being spoken of the way my father now spoke of his friend. I was ashamed of being part of a culture so clearly ridiculed. I was ashamed to be the person that I was and always had been. I was ashamed to have discovered myself.

Staring at ribbons upon ribbons on the second floor of the gallery in Chicago, Illinois, on February 18th, 2017, I conjured up an image of the man I’d never met.

I now stood unashamed of who I am. I pieced together what I knew of the queer experience combined with what I knew about my father’s lifespan.

It would have been in the 80’s. Kansas City, Missouri. “Small-town,” southern-Midwest queer life.

Chris. Isolated. Maybe thinking there was no one like him. Did he have any gay friends? A partner?

I imagined a young man, maybe in college, whose friends knew he was gay. In the 80s—no small feat. My dad described the job they both had in a fast food place. How Chris loved the ice cream machine and wanted to make all the shakes. How that was considered the girl’s job. I imagined the young man with an apron and a silly server hat, grinning at the cold metal spinning and pouring. I imagined his “gay hands,” with the signature quirk of the wrist, as he handed over the frosted class.

“And then Chris got AIDS. And Chris died.”

My dad didn’t even know the weight of the history behind those words, but tossed them out with a flippancy that should have shamed him, if only because he was talking about someone who used to be his friend, who had died.

Chris. Did he know anyone else who had died? Was he the first of his community to go? Or was he trapped watching his friends dying around him, knowing that he would join them—slowly, agonizingly, disgustingly. I thought of the pictures around me. There was no hiding the blood and pus and mucus and skin lesions and the wasting and drooling and haunted eyes and pain.

I imagined him lying in bed shaking and sweating. I imagined him in the doctor’s office naked with black spots on his skin. I imagined his bones sticking out at the joints and his face drawing longer and longer lines below his eyes. I imagined him alone or with friends despairing at his side. I imagined him crying with pain and anguish as he watched himself and others around him succumbing to what would have been an unavoidable fate.

How long was Chris dying? Who took him to the doctor? Who cleaned his sheets? Who brought him food? Who stood by his bed? Or was he alone?

Did my dad ever visit Chris? Did he talk to him? Did they write? At what point did they part ways? My father spoke of the death and the funeral as if it came up unexpectedly, as if he’d had no idea his friend was sick and dying until it was over.

“His mom called me, and invited me to the funeral. And I went, not because he was gay, but because he was Chris.”

Because Chris was something worth appreciating but his queer identity was not.

My father was loving half a person. He was appreciating the pretty parts. The funny images of him at the ice cream machine. His apron. His hat. His gay smile. But my dad didn’t want anything to do with the rest of it. The needles. The sex. The blood and pus and band aids and sweat and night terrors. What about the pride and fear and isolation of being gay?

My father told the story of his friend’s death as some kind of cautionary tale. Almost like the sex ed teacher in the movie Mean Girls—“If you are gay, you will get AIDS, and you will die.”

Using his dead friend’s suffering to convince me that being gay was as gross as a disease.

As if being Chris was somehow separate from being gay, as if dying from AIDS was the inevitable outcome, and no one would mourn the half of you they didn’t want to see.

In Chicago that night, I picked a ribbon from the basket and found a place, low on the fence, in one of the few small spaces left over, and tied my tiny piece among the many others, one sad story among many, one aching cry among the millions of half-mourned lives.

1487474578679

Why did my dad tell me the story of his dead gay friend the night he piled words together to gut the integrity of the community I’d just gotten a hold on?

Why did he use the story of his friend’s suffering to throw spite in my face, as if the suffering itself didn’t matter, but the aftermath was some kind of triumph on his end, the noble straight friend ignoring the deceased’s identity and avoiding the stories of the pain?

My fingers left the ribbon on the metal pole and I walked to stand inside the circle the fence was making, turning and staring again and again at the faded colors, the faded lives around me, gone but not forgotten.

I thought of Chris’s death and who took him to the mortuary, who collected his ashes or who threw him in a black trash bag and left him with the other bodies of the other dead gay men?

And my mind turned to ashes and the images of a crowd of people singing and screaming outside the White House, throwing the ashes of their loved ones through the gate and chanting, shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame

My father made me feel ashamed for something five years later I was proud of. I wanted him to feel the shame he should have felt when all he felt was pride in what he saw as altruistic pity for his dead gay friend.

I keep the pictures in my head and the voices I’ve never heard, say his name. And a shame that should be felt by those who permit the suffering when they turn the other cheek.

1487466521222

Shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s