I first heard rumours of a mysterious disease that was killing US gay men some time around 1982, when I was living in Amsterdam.
People said, it’s only hitting men who have lots of casual partners, so fussy faggotts like you are probably safe. No, it’s poppers: cigarettes cause lung cancer, this is probably something similar. Ease up on the amyl, stay out of the backrooms and saunas, and you’ll be fine. It’s only killing Americans: we Europeans are probably safe, so long as we stick to our own.
American tourists started telling everyone they were Canadian.
This American connection was not reassuring for someone in the midst of a long distance love affair with a guy in Boston Massachusetts. Then the deaths began.
The big handsome moustachioed and very much in-demand blond bartender from the expat American gay bar – who laughingly referred to himself as a ‘retired Swedish cooch dancer’ – locked himself away in his apartment, seeing no-one but one old friend. Soon after, I heard he’d died.
One of his buddies – a whip-smart little black muscle queen – succumbed to meningitis, which turned him into a rambling idiot in the year before he finally passed away.
Another simply fell off his stool in the bar one night and was dead before he hit the floor, a pillbox with a built in timer clutched in his hand.
In the midst of all this, I flew to the US to be with my lover. But things went wrong. One of his best friends, the sweetest, kindest Indonesian man, took care of me when the relationship fell apart.
A year after I flew back to the UK, he called, and in a voice faint and papery, said he wanted to say goodbye, as he was not expected to survive the week.
His call was not the first of that kind, nor the last. People I had known, people I had worked with, people I had loved.
One of the hardest was from a friend of a friend, someone I had known well, but never particularly liked. I’d heard he was ill, but never thought to get in touch. His farewell call, in which he thanked me for being a friend, made me deeply ashamed of myself.
Out for a drink, I ran into someone else I didn’t much like. You know how it is when a sweet, handsome guy you’ve known for years suddenly takes up with a jealous bitchy possessive lover you can’t stand? This was the lover.
I asked him how is partner was. He reared up, spitting venom.
“He died of AIDS a year ago. He died in agony. No one would help him. I was there. This is my first night out since that time, and you. . . .you . . . . ” He slammed down his drink and fled the bar.
Shortly after, I fled too.
The stories kept coming, death rising into view via whispered gossip, phone calls, letters, even the obituary columns. Old friends. Past lovers. Past colleagues. Would it ever stop? Will it ever stop?
On World AIDS Day I look back across a yawning gulf. Waving from the far bank, I can dimly see the ghosts of all those who died young and unfulfilled, who never had the chance of the security and happiness I now enjoy.
Who died shunned by family and even so-called friends, abused even by some of the doctors and nurses supposed to care for them.
And I remember the glare of silent, angry parents who inwardly raged at we who survived, for leading their sons to an early agonising death. It was a time like no other before it, but I fear we have become so complacent that another like it is coming.
Please take care of yourselves and always, always use a condom.