This summer, I turned 40. I initially came out when I was 18 or so. So my entire life as an adult and self-identified gay man has been, to some extent, within the context of HIV/AIDS. I've never known a world, at least since my late adolescence, without it. Perhaps that day will come. But I can say today that we're a long way from it.
Today, as others probably are, I'm thinking of all the people I know who are HIV positive, who are living with AIDS, who have died. I'm thinking of all the people I don't know, the 40 million out there, who have seroconverted, the millions more who will seroconvert, who will be living with HIV and AIDS, who may die from it.
I am thinking of Tack, who was the first person I ever knew who died of AIDS, back in 1985, and Ruben, who was my second boyfriend, whom I knew was intermittently sick and whom I learned had died from a letter that returned to me marked "Deceased." I'm thinking of Ben, who was one of the first men I cruised intently, not even sure what I was doing. I'm thinking of Zachary, who walked around Greenwich Village with a KS lesion blazoned on his forehead without shame, and Roy, who was so talented and beautiful, even during his final year or so when the pneumonia had reduced him to a near-ghost of himself, and Donald, who was as fierce as his poems which he declaimed beside me while not feeling well, and Craig, who was one Black gay men I ever saw perform his work, and Siong-Huat, who suffered so terribly, collapsing in front of a crowd of people at a hotel in Boston, and apologized later for the lapse in decorum. I'm thinking of Asotto, whom I always wanted to meet but didn't, and Essex, who published my first story and let me interview him in the attic at Inman Street in Cambridge, and Joseph, who inspired me, and Melvin, whom I admired so intensely that he still remains a model. I'm thinking of Ron, whose death sent one friend into a tailspin he's never recovered from. I'm thinking of Keith's roommate (had they been lovers? why was he so coy about this?), who was dying in the room next the one where we had sex, and who would turn the music up to drown out the moans and coughing, because he didn't know what else to do. I'm thinking of Thomas, who was a poet who became a playwright, and whose smile used to light up a room, like Kelly's--he was always grinning. I'm thinking of the Opera Man, whose real name I can't recall, who could list the arias from every opera ever written, who once broke down to me the entire history of classical German classical music and sang bits of songs so I would understand, whose nose turned blue, who said one evening, as he stopped in to chat, "I'm very ill," and who then just never returned. I'm thinking of Sally's cousin, Curt, who drove me all around San Francisco, giving me as much history as he could come up with, and wrote the most brilliant letters I've ever read, and read my poem of tribute kindly, knowing pretty well that it was an epitaph.
I'm thinking of the many nameless men, the ones whose names escape me though I once vowed I'd never forget them. I've forgotten them. But I haven't forgotten them, the men, the faces, as Denis Johnson says, so "close I can touch them," but I can't. They are part of the fabric of my life, my history, my memory, my experience. Psychically for me their presences and absences can't be mapped precisely, but they are always there. (And as I've typed this, I've remembered at least one name.)
When I was about 21, I used to think that I might not make it to 40. I didn't think exactly that it would be AIDS that took me out, but I wasn't sure either. I hadn't met C. back then, and I felt that while I was meeting people who did like me, a few who did love me, that this society as a whole didn't care whether I lived or not, didn't care whether I died or not, didn't care about people like me--people who were Black, and poor or working-class, no matter how smart or attractive or tireless or personable, people who were gay, or bisexual, or transgender. People like me were and are expendable to this society. It does not, as Adrienne Rich once wrote, "imagine us." And I still believe this. This society still doesn't care. Had it cared, the government and public health establishment would have acted as it should in the early 1980s, treating AIDS not as moral issue and a means to stigmatize and punish people, to celebrate the suffering of others, but as a public health issue, so that thousands who're gone, the men whose names I've listed above might still be here, and thousands more would never have contracted HIV. If this society cared, there'd be universal health care in 2005, and people wouldn't be wondering how they could pay for their medicine, what emergency room they'd have to go to, how long they could go without getting the help they needed. And if this society cared, black people and poor people and women and LGBT people--Black, poor LGBT people--would feel that this health system really cared about addressing their needs and concerns. In 2005, that's hardly the case, and I'm not sure when it's going to change. But it certainly won't change if we don't keep pushing for it to change.
But I also realized that if I was going to survive, I had to take matters into my own hands. I had to protect myself. As tired as I might become by the racism and homophobia and heterosexism and classism and misogyny and all the other isms related to these, I had to be aware, to think, to learn, to act, to live. I had to protect myself, because if there was a vaccine--for AIDS, or prostate cancer or heart disease or anything else--this society wasn't going to make it easy for me to access it. I also realized that many people like me, who'd internalized the external hate and rejection, who'd even gotten it from their families (as I did), would turn on themselves. They'd ask, what do I have to live for? Why should I care if I make it to 40, or 50, or 75? What is the purpose? They might know how to protect themselves, but in a moment they'd forget it, consciously or unconsciously, or they might ask why protecting themselves was even worth it? Who values me? Who will value me? Who will value me, who will love me, who even gives a damn if I'm still here 1o years from now, let alone 20 years from now?
Perhaps many people who are at risk of contracting HIV and AIDS still think this. Perhaps they don't really think about HIV/AIDS at all. Perhaps even in 2005, they just don't know that much about HIV and AIDS. I used to think this was impossible, but I have met grown men whose knowledge about this disease is rudimentary. I'm shocked, but then I'm not. There's still some uncertainty about whether oral sex is a route of transmission; so maybe doubts about that become doubts about so much more. I have a cousin, a gay man, who is still convinced that HIV doesn't cause AIDS or lead to AIDS. He's a teacher.
Or maybe they're tired of thinking about death, and equating sex, or specifically sex without condoms and semen, a vital life-fluid, like blood and lymph, with death and sickness. Or maybe they don't think about that equation at all. Maybe they look at the people who are telling them to "be safe" or "take care of yourself" and think, you don't give a damn about me, or you don't know what you're talking about, or why should I listen to you, I don't respect you, I don't like you, I don't know you, I don't trust you. I don't respect/like/know/trust myself. That's key. Respecting yourself, liking yourself, knowing yourself, trusting yourself is no guarantee that you won't contact HIV, but it does mean that you may be more likely to make the choices that are better for you. Those choices might very well include doing whatever you can not to contract HIV. Getting people who are at risk to the place where they can respect/like/know/trust themselves and others is one of the chief ongoing challenge around HIV/AIDS. It certainly is a factor in the high levels of HIV seroconversion among Black people in this society, but then, as I've said above, what can we do, what do we have to do? Because the society itself isn't changing--at least fast enough.
HIV and AIDS continue to make many people, millions of people, very ill. Though we rarely see people dying of AIDS in our society, people still are. Not as frequently as before 1994-95, because now thousands of people are living with HIV and AIDS, and living full, rich, productive lives. But people are still getting sick, and still dying. It took tremendous militancy to push the government and the medical community and Big Pharma to develop drugs that would allow people to live with HIV, but people are living with HIV nevertheless. Outside the US, in Africa, in the Caribbean, in Latin America, in Southeast and East Asia, in the former Soviet Bloc countries, people are still getting very sick and dying from HIV. They don't have the access to the drugs, and the disease for millions isn't chronic as it is here. Again, our nation, the richest on earth, says it's committed to addressing the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, and yet it won't put the money where the words are. They disappear, and the dollars never materialize....
I fear speaking for others, especially on this issue. But I don't fear speaking out. We cannot simply look from our own perspective--fraught but manageable as it is--and maintain our humanity if we don't push more to address the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. For me it's a basic issue of humanity, and one of the most urgent ones we face. And here in the US, too many people--too many men, women and children, who don't view HIV as an option they are considering continue to seroconvert. I'm not talking about people who conduct a risk analysis, but people who don't think about it until they have HIV, or discover that they have full-blown AIDS. This is our ongoing challenge, today, tomorrow, and every day hereafter.
Back in July I posted a long piece, from 2001-2, on HIV/AIDS and the state of affairs in the US, for Black Americans, as well as across the globe. Some of what I said, particularly about rethinking the approach to educating about and preventing HIV/AIDS still applies.
To wrap up, here are three poems I wrote a few years ago, all of which deal with HIV/AIDS in different ways.
The first is from a suite of prose poems about the 1980s, called "Slits":
IN THE WARM LIVING ROOM, TALKING OF BROTHERHOOD
We sit in the warm living room all afternoon, talking of brotherhood, how solidarity will arm us in the struggle against racism, homophobia and AIDS, why we need to and have to come together. "Come together….": another round of snickers. Our eyes trick from face to face, lap to lap. That one's my type, I think, but so is that brother. And that one. It'll be a few years before Chuck leads me through the "love exercise," and I can say "I love you" to a man who is not my boyfriend or lover or brother and mean it. Now, I rifle through the papers in my hands, fathoming I'm the youngest in the room, or almost youngest, which is real currency, not exactly equal to beauty, but close enough. Someone's eyes are on me, my body-builder friend who's West Indian and the freckled brother who came with him, now I field several others' hunting glances, lengthening stares. We're exploring "the impact of HIV" on our lives. I want to impress them with how much I have lived but I realize that by comparison my experience, at 21, is at best minimal. Instead I nod, coquettishly, at the comments of the man with bullets for nostrils and a crotch too many have lost their dignity over. I try to register if he has an interest in me; maybe he doesn't, so what about that brother? Oh days and nights of wanton youth, desire so easy to ignite and burn through: I flip through my mental calendar to see when I can fit them all in, then volunteer to collect this month's dues and contributions in my left pocket, phone numbers in my right.
Copyright © John Keene, 2005.
Here's a very old sonnet for Ben Teele, a late Black scholar of French and Francophone literature:
JE TE VEUX
for Ben Teele
Side by side on your couch, we came as far
as “Je me suis né—” when Lisa’s stare burst
through the dark: Trick-or-Drink, my thirst
steady rising I left, forgetting my candy stars.
Or maybe I didn’t: nothing--glasses, underwear,
poems--of mine ever graced your room; the farthest
we went were hellos, quick hugs, fantasies, so pressed
our exchanges. Oh, we should have made love, right there—
Still, I dreamt: seducing you in Dumas's tongue, seizing
your hand for a dance like those brave pairs
crinolining the ballroom. Instead, appeasing
abandoned gods I waited; then you mounting the stairs
in Adams House, mere bones ascending stones, me freezing
you in that snapshot, love’s frieze: memory endures.
Copyright © John Keene, 2005.
And here is my poem dedicated to the late Curt Hillyer:
MISSION AND OUTPOST
Beneath the awning of the Leland no one passes as I saunter, hungrily, rolling
from ball to heel on my not-sore foot, waiting, eyes keyed for anybody trolling
or trying to. No luck; just this drizzly mausoleum, where I had imagined a western Oz,
an emerald knob of pastel gabled Victorians exulting beneath a pearly vault of sky, whose
beauty, immensity, should serve as sign and seal of my redemption. Instead, gray, gummy hills
of concrete, dank, steep oily inclines that only wind me towards dizziness. No sun as rain spirals
into iridiscent eddies at the curb: the TV claimed that silvery storm-rivers were on tomorrow’s bill. Across the fray
hustlers ply the bars, play games with johns. This side, a runaway, a drag junkie, though Polk is hardly the gay
hub it once was; that eminence still clings to the Castro. I turn and you pull up. Now, as we zoom
there, climbing, dipping on Market I recall the many books, the magazines I’d scoured in that tomb
deep under Cambridge, how I’d combed and cleared the HQ section, hoping to unearth and utilize like Dedalus
that perfect thread of information that would guide me through my labyrinth, grow wise, salvage and loose
the sybarite trapped inside. Instead what I found were tips on how to dress, pack a cock, achieve the ultimate in clone
perfection; how to cruise and lay and lose the gold-locked, virile god of everyman's dreams (but mine); bemoan
the arrival of one's sexual autumn, the dying light of the Pines or dunes of Provincetown; work a bathhouse or four–
and where they were in every civilized metropole; popper, coke and fist one’s way to true liberation; keep score
by counting the number of times you’d hit the clinic, beat it, got it again, forgotten and passed it on; and then more tales
about young, tanned, vapid beauties who’d fled or gone mad or both; and all those grand parades, processions, festivals–
stocked with garish, compelling "types"–all beginning and ending here. Instead, no confirmation
tonight of memory’s emulsion: only flashes of personal recognition, a rangy afro'd brother, a thick-set Asian
guy, a caravana of chicos, buff and bundled, dishing in quiet tones, butchly swishing by. As by plan we dine
before your tour at Ma Tante Sumi; all about us the ravage remains invisible. A surviving link in the chain
you become the evening’s griot, pointing out where what once was is or isn’t or will be or would have been, what gave
in '70, '74, '80, expatiate about the reefery bliss that wafted up to the marquee of the Castro Theater, how each wave,
native, arrivant, transformed this beachhead of yerba buena into his or her own paradise, figured out what really
mattered were the exigencies of pleasure, the flesh's satisfaction. One perceives it here, despite the steely,
spitty air, this district's slow contraction. Before the glowing windowpanes, I peer in, wired by the meal, the wine, a tyro feeling veteran,
awed and so jejune, as though this were unreal, I’d seen it all before. Tiring, you say goodbye, drive off, as a strange red-faced man
accosts me, drags me to meet his “friends”: a ratty white twenty-something; a boohooing queen; a faun-haired boy
soon to turn his tail in porn to pay his rent. I slip away, unsure and idling, pensive in the downpour, coy
to inscrutability. I mean to retrace our circuit and do, begin again, take stock, envision myself on this date
in this same spot twenty years before, but falter half-way through: my imagination sags beneath the weight
of disappointments on this shadow trail, so I pause to regroup, gather my stories, but fail; I'm lost and can't divine
even the few strong traces you've left me, while a tall, pony-tailed stud stares uneasily, as if observing the blind.
And so I follow my steps backwards, to the Jaguar's shelves of tchotchkes, in A Different Light I browse, dry
off, then slip into the Pendulum for a sip of beer. It's midnight: my head leadens as I pause and sigh,
admiring the leathered and rubber-clad legions strolling, prowling, renewing the Castro’s rites,
my yearning crystallizing in this story of recalling them, as the hills yield to stars and headlights.
Copyright © John Keene, 2005.
Another Way of Looking at the Issue:
We All Have AIDS If One of Us Does
a burst of light
AIDS Combat Zone
Black Gay Blogger
Brotha on Anotha Side of the Planet
China in a Nutshell
The Edge of Night
The Emancipation of ProfessorGQ
flan! flan! flan!
from where i stand
Front Porch Storytellin
Lynne D. Johnson
Mandrake Society Radio
Old Gold Soul
Online thoughts of a Gay Chinese guy
On My Way
Sex and the Second City
Simply Fred Smith
Steven A. Claiborne...Revealed!
Steven G. Fullwood
The Republic of T.
The Starr Report
The Unconquerable Soul
Walk Your Own Path
What's a Black Man to Do?