THE POLITICS OF THE '80s
Some friends encouraged me to join the earliest gay pride marches in New York City during the years immediately following the Stonewall riots. Those gatherings instilled a sense of gay civics within me that soon inspired greater participation. I joined the minority of gay voices who annually attended "hearings" at New Yorks City Council as attempts were made to adopt legislation that would guarantee equal rights for gay and lesbian citizens. The bill failed to pass for eleven consecutive years.
Meanwhile, my career flourished. I earned money faster than I could spend it (perhaps my ultimate goal in Life!) as I met gay men of wealth and responsibility. I encouraged them to join me in forming FAIRPAC, a Political Action Committee that would "support the friends and defeat the enemies of gay rights legislation." We were mercenaries raising money within our circles endlessly and tirelessly. By targeting the key races of our enemies, we tipped the balance of power within New Yorks City Council, donating thousands of gay dollars to the friends who could defeat the political hacks who were so determined to keep discrimination legal. Two years after FAIRPACs incorporation, the Gay Rights Bill came before the full City Council and finally passed, thanks solely to the new votes from candidates wed financed into office. FAIRPAC gained enormous publicity, wielding power that surprises me to this day. These were incredibly heady times, battling the Catholic Church on the front pages of the papers, accepting Mayor Kochs invitations to City Hall, endorsing candidates who sought our recognition, speaking at endless fundraising galas and modest cocktail parties. In the crowd I met Mr. Right, and maintained a long term monogamous relationship. All was bliss.
Not! Born in 1952, my peers and I were probably at the height of our sexual prowess just as AIDS entered our vocabulary. Men of my age group were the first ones to die; uninformed about the health crisis for too long, too thrilled by promiscuous times to consider adapting their habits, denial was easy. The gay health issue became a motivating factor that enabled some politicians to accept funds from a "special interest group" such as ours, as their gay and straight constituents began to talk of AIDS. Its impact was especially apparent when Rock Hudson, a friend of the President no less, had to go to France to seek adequate medical care. Within a few months of forming FAIRPACs Boards of Directors and Advisors, my co-chair Mark Turkel (also an attorney for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund) died of AIDS complications, never seeing our goal become reality. (As a result, his lover lost his job, confirming with greater voracity why protective legislation was needed!) Weeks following Mark's death, our Advisor Paul Popham, Director of the Gay Mens Health Crisis (whose life is amply documented in Larry Kramers The Normal Heart) died too. I was 31 and my friends were dropping dead. I felt that I couldnt exactly write their stories, but I felt I needed some way to remember the contributions they made to a very specific chapter in my life, so I naïvely entered their names on a list, which I stored within my first computer.
The political action committee brought me many remarkable friends, more than some might meet in a lifetime. They were committed activists, political crazies, wealthy financiers, celebrities; a gamut of faces, names, agendas, all crossing my path regularly. Our united commitment to placing a gay voice at the decision-making level of our government palpably intensified those friendships. It was hard to separate the feelings of love from those of empowerment, for somehow our feelings for those rich times all melded together. At the end of the calendar year following the bills passage I resigned my post, recognizing that FAIRPAC's future meant franchising it across New York State, pursuing similar legislation at a statewide level, a task beyond pro bono Manhattan volunteers. (Today the organization is called The Empire State Pride Agenda, one of gay Americas most influential lobbies and fundraisers.)
Theres a price to be paid for placing oneself on the cutting edge. Those friends kept dying. I dutifully added their names to my list. When my partner and I decided to march in AIDSWalk, I generated a letter to friends and employees seeking their charitable sponsorship, noting in it that I had buried 18 friends. The subsequent year it was 23, then 36. My straight co-workers were flabbergasted that the number could be so great. I had to qualify the names, defining those with whom Id broken bread as"friends" thus meriting a place on the list, as opposed to those I remembered as "acquaintances," or the list would be even longer. During that time, my friends Larry Kramer and Aldyn McKean formed ACT-UP, a civil confrontation that I cherished but now felt too remorseful to join. A steady commitment to ACT-UP, I feared, would simply place me too directly in the firing line of yet more funerals.
At a surprise birthday party the following year, Aldyn of ACT-UP and Lex, a gay business associate of mine, were revelers. Both knew of my growing list of names. At the end of the evening, I quietly told them that my list had made its point. It was now 50 names. It felt morbid to continue. I explained that at this round number, the time had come to end it. "Oh, no!" they both chastised. "The number IS the point. You MUST maintain the list." Chillingly, they are now numbers 60 and 62. I wept furiously as Aldyns family requested that I organize his funeral at the Quaker church. Larry Kramer couldnt bear to attend.
Manhattan is a small island; friends meet coincidently on sidewalks all the time. As I strolled, Id see friends across the street, wave as usual, then remember that those friends were dead. Vivid pieces of my life were missing, yet there seemed no outlet for bereavement. The sidewalks of New York, a place Id even helped to shape, had lost their charm. At age 40, the list had grown to 75 names. I was plainly haunted. I needed out. It was time to break up my pattern and start a new life in sunshine.
I found Los Angeles, and within weeks of my arrival, I found the Gay Mens Chorus, which provides me with the stability of gay camaraderie and support. The men of my age quietly acknowledge that weve survived the darkest aspects of the plague separately but together. Without knowing specifics, despite locations and names, we know that all of our stories, our lists, tell the same tale.