Shame

Shame

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Witch

Witch

Every year at Halloween I would go as a witch. I’m not sure exactly how the tradition started—it was probably just something cute my mom came up with. Or maybe it was because even then they all secretly thought of me as a bitch. Maybe it was some prediction for how I was supposed to turn out later in life. Or maybe it was just because they finally had a girl—“girl”—and wanted to latch onto gender roles as soon as possible. While my brothers ran around in bedsheets and Ninja Turtle masks and the dragon costumes that I occasionally stole to wear as pajamas, every Halloween I eagerly donned my black dress, striped tights and floppy fake-satin hat. I clutched my purple broom in one hand and my bag of candy in the other and skipped through town, confident that I was the cutest girl anyone had seen that night.

After I while I wised up and realized the only one who cared how I looked was my mother.

When the youngest of us turned twelve we stopped going trick-or-treating, my family still made a pretty big production of dressing up to have dinner on Halloween. I got older too. Wiser even. One year I went as a witch with jeans. That happened to be the year I didn’t give a shit about making anyone happy on Halloween. I really was a witch that night, if you believe my mom. I let myself be snarky and didn’t monitor every single little thing that came out of my mouth. I played the games my little brother invented for us that were supposed to be Halloween themed and let myself be a sore loser and say out loud if I thought my brothers were cheating. I sat sprawled on the floor and threw my hat on one of the chairs. I didn’t even bring out the broom that night but left it hanging, draped in fake cobwebs, by the fireplace.

My family was apparently scandalized at my newfound autonomy. They were shocked that I was not letting everyone walk all over me, as I had done for the past, what was it then, eighteen years?

That winter was the winter my Dad said without hesitation in front of my little brother that I was the most self-centered person he knew.

I did not want to spend another Halloween at that man’s house.

Counselling told me to try again. To make an effort (as if I hadn’t for the past two years I’d been at college). So I tried. I faked happy. I put away the witch costume but that doesn’t mean I changed their perceptions. To them this was a costume. This person. This face. This suddenly-okay sibling. Suddenly interested in what the others were doing. Suddenly not getting into arguments with the father figure every meal.

When that didn’t work I put on another kind of costume. I was as gay as I felt like I could be. I dressed in loose baggy clothes and didn’t take my hat or shoes off inside. I wore rainbow bracelets and scarves. Some days I amped up the jewelry and other days I went around in jeans and a hoodie. I sat on tables and yakked about myself. If they didn’t want to talk to me, I’d talk to them. I chattered nonstop. I made gay jokes. I made romantic, very non-heteronormative comments about female celebrities. I corrected pronoun usage and added endless strings of what-ifs to discussions.

They really hated that.

So I went back to being quiet. Put on the costume of the broody twenty-something. It wasn’t that hard as it was right around my first breakup so I told myself that was my excuse. But less and less I considered that place home. Less and less I wanted to go back. More and more I looked for reasons to not be there on Halloween, which was coming up, and which was normally the only occasion I felt okay spending with my family.

But my little brother was so excited about his costume, and all of his cool ideas for our family-only party. I thought maybe it was worth a shot. Maybe I’d have fun. Maybe it would turn out okay in the end.

He wanted to dye his hair blue, since mine was purple. I wanted us to be hair dye buddies. He was working through his own identity crisis at the time, so maybe sharing a piece of a costume would strengthen our bond.

But of course any similarity to the rebel older sibling was a symptom of my negative influence. My mom quickly intervened and temporary hair chalk was used instead. They did it before I came. I brought a bottle of blue Manic Panic I’d purchased especially for the occasion, excited at the idea of a bonding experience with my favorite sibling. My mom flipped shit, yelling at me about cosmetics and cancer, how could I be so insensitive after Uncle John’s three golf-ball-sized brain tumors, she didn’t care if I’d been dying my hair for months, I could get cancer if I wanted—she didn’t care about that—but how dare I bring it into her house—how dare I threaten her family.

Once again I avoided my little brother’s eyes bulging in astonishment, mumbling at him not to retaliate as I bent my head to my mother’s verbal abuse. With my mother acting as a gargoyle over my shoulder I looked up each individual ingredient to see if they were cancer-causing. After finding them all to be FDA approved my mother sniffed and walked away without a word. I looked to my brother, who shrugged, and said his costume would be okay with just the chalk. Besides, he had rehearsal in the morning. He wasn’t sure how his director would feel about a blue-haired news reporter.

I steadied myself and turned my attention to my own costume. I was going to be Watson. Dr. John Watson, from Doyle’s classics, moustache and all. I blew up snapchat with costume selfies. The hat. The coat. My parents didn’t even flinch at the fake moustache. I was pretty proud of myself.

I never wanted to be a witch again.

Dr. Watson lived for maybe an hour before I had to take him off to cook. My beloved doctor demolished by gender roles. So much for my newfound freedom; so much for sticking the finger to everything Halloween had stood for until this point.

I was a girl again and had to do what girls are supposed to do. I may as well have been wearing the floppy hat and clutching the broom, red-faced and chubby-cheeked, following my mother like a clueless duckling waiting to fall into the water.