This piece is featured in Issue No. 6 Defining Queer Liberation


AIDS Kills Fags Dead

You could say I was born in a year when hope began to fade. The year before I was born, 1967, is remembered for the Summer of Love, people were protesting Vietnam and – based on nostalgic recollections – it seemed like things were headed in a positive direction. In 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated; Nixon was elected, and Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring. Woodstock, the first moonwalk, and the Stonewall Riot may have highlighted 1969, but the Manson Murders and Altamont tempered those events.

The contradictory nature of these three years – amazing highs inspiring hope dashed by horrible events – seems to define my life particularly as a gay man. I don’t recall my parents talking about Stonewall, but I have vague recollections of hearing about the Manson trial on the news, however, they weren’t overly close minded. At the dinner table when I was in the fourth grade (circa 1977/78) I proudly explained the differences between gays and lesbians. “Gaybees like other boys. Lesbees like other girls,” I said apropos of nothing. I can only imagine the conversation my parents had later that night. I am quite sure that they were certain I was gay (in retrospect how I believed anyone ever thought I was straight is beyond my comprehension) and since we lived in rural Pennsylvania, I am also quite sure they were concerned. 

For my 12th birthday I received three records: the Saturday Night Fever Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Macho Man and Cruisin’ by The Village People (again, how I ever thought people thought I was straight is a mystery). Of the three, The Village People records were my favorite. I listened to the records (and missed all the double entendres), but the covers of Macho Man and Cruisin’ were more exciting than the cache of Playboys and Penthouses I had found under my brother’s bed. The hours I spent in my room trying to decide which of them was hottest. Adam West’s Batman may have “made me gay,” but The Village People welcomed me to manhood.

Two of my strongest memories from fifth and sixth grade concern The Village People. In fifth grade at afterschool volleyball, I remember the popular kids dancing to YMCA (and yes – they were doing THAT dance). On another occasion, I was at a neighbor’s house and she was on the phone all excited, telling a friend about watching The Village People on Merv Griffin. To be clear, this wasn’t a teenage neighbor, this woman taught at the elementary school I attended. It would be years before I recognized how great this was. Openly gay men were being celebrated in rural Pennsylvania by people as varied as mean girls and schoolteachers. Perhaps this is why my parents didn’t have a complete meltdown when I had explained the difference between gays and lesbians to the family at the dinner table: the sexual revolution really was making inroads. 

But there was something else to that. The unguarded abandon and promise of disco offered hope and promise. The Village People were GAY and PROUD. Granted they were hot and turned me on, but I could be them – I could never be Batman or Robin. While the Village People may have used heightened stereotypes, they didn’t hide behind them the way Batman and Robin hid behind their secret identities: They knew what they were doing was camp in a way that Batman and Robin did not. The Village People offered the hope that I could be the person that the kids at school didn’t laugh at, call “woman” all through 7th grade, or circulate a petition my freshman year of high school – that everyone signed – asking me to commit suicide. 

Then IT happened.

Not the Disco Sucks moment; HIV and AIDS.

I don’t remember when I first heard about HIV/AIDS, but I do remember the jokes. I also remember being scared. Just a few years after people were celebrating The Village People, some of the same people were making AIDS jokes and there were all kinds of vile graffiti. I vividly remember seeing “AIDS Kills Fags Dead” written on bathroom walls.

Then it happened. At some point around the age of 15 I noticed a purple spot on my right foot. I had Kaposi Sarcoma and I was dying of AIDS. I’d never had sex, but the words were written right there on the bathroom walls: “AIDS Kills Fags Dead!” This was confirmation of the fact that I was gay (so much for that whole “this is a phase” thing) and I was dying. This was circa 1983: there was no internet, I couldn’t look it up in the library at school, and I couldn’t tell my parents. I couldn’t tell anyone. So, I bottled it up and went through the darkest, loneliest days of my teenage years.

I tell this story 40 years later to explain how deeply discrimination can bury itself into a person’s psyche and create things like internalized homophobia. In three years the hope and joy promised by The Village People was torpedoed by the AIDS Crisis.

I always add this epilogue:

In the summer of 1986, after I graduated high school I got a summer job as a janitor at the hospital where my mother was a nursing administrator. At that time the hospital would put signs on the doors of rooms if the person was “isolated” for some reason, the worst was the sign for “Blood and Body Diseases” as it either meant Hepatitis or AIDS. As a summer worker I floated around filling in, and one day I got to the floor I was assigned to and discovered that I had to clean a room where there was the one and only AIDS patient in the hospital. “I’m not cleaning this,” I told my supervisor. “I’m not getting AIDS.” He said fine. A short while later my mother marched onto the floor, grabbed me by the arm and dragged me into an empty room. She slapped me across the face – HARD! “What are you doing? You have less chance of getting AIDS than you do any of the other diseases in this hospital from cleaning that room. That man is dying and deserves respect. Now get your ass in there and clean his room!”