“I imagined his losses as paving stones, each appearing one after the other, each the dispossession of a dream, a hope.”
I was such a newbie, arriving in San Francisco on a rare sunlit afternoon in mid-November 1983. A picaro of sorts, by way of trust-fund-baby hippie communes and other, similarly random forms of housing — someone’s moldy garage apartment, roachy rentals fitted with the ubiquitous dairy-crate-and-wood-plank shelving, sofas and chairs hauled from the Goodwill or the street, linens filched from my mother’s cabinets. My exhilaration was boundless; I dreamed of celebration, revelry, the glorious tearing away of the yoke of my past, with all its damnation and censure. And in fact, there would be those things. But there were other things I did not see: years of stupefying loss, brilliant illuminations of spiritual growth, and as if in closure, departure.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, Tennessee had been my family’s home, and I had lived there almost my entire life. On my last day there, I helped a friend build his house in the country, as repayment for his help with my “house” — a truck camper set on knee walls, situated in deepwoods on the last commune I would ever inhabit. My task was to hammer eight-penny nails into the sheets of plywood he set across the roof rafters.
Once, when I stood to stretch, I looked out from my roof perch to the surrounding miles of Tennessee hills, red and gold in late autumn, the air dry and fragrant in the peace and silence of the countryside. The moment contained a coda, a tender flourish of farewell. Somehow I understood that I would not see these hills again for many years, if at all. When I went back to my hammering, I was fine with that. I had no voice in this place, no words of my own that I could speak even though I very much needed to speak them. Or I wanted the right to speak them.
I went about the entire westward trip half-assed. Took a Continental Trailways bus to Tucson, where an old friend bought my plane ticket to San Francisco. Once arrived, I shoved my big camping backpack into a paid locker at the Airporter terminal on O’Farrell Street, a street name that meant nothing that day except that it was in San Francisco and I was finally here. Had my important things in my jacket pocket, amounting to about sixteen dollars and change, some Bob Marley mixes on a couple of cassettes, my cigarettes and an expensive, engraved lighter, a recent employer’s parting gift. I had no identification, no wallet. (Back then, you didn’t need i.d. to fly — only a ticket, which could be purchased at the counter.)
I bought a cheap map and studied it, then began walking toward Haight Street, my destination. As I walked, I put my hand in my pocket and fastened on the lighter, touching it like a talisman.
I suppose, as in an ordinary tale of serendipity, I could say that I “found myself” walking up Haight Street on that day, as in “I found myself walking into the very same building that later I lived in with my new wife.” That kind of thing. But what I would actually mean is that I “found myself” in the sense that in that storied city, I learned to become real to myself, not unlike perhaps the Velveteen Rabbit — that kind of real, with its stamp of a genuine inevitability at last spreading into a joyful fullness. Corny, right? But I am here to attest that San Francisco loved me until I learned to love myself.
For most of my kind, coming out to other people — once you come out to yourself — does not happen on a single occasion. It is almost always a ridiculously tortuous exercise requiring a skillful analysis of many people’s probable responses — be they friends, parents, grandparents, employers, fellow employees, and so on. A misstep might carry the risk of being disowned, fired, evicted, even physically assaulted or, at the least, contemptuously ignored. It may still, even in our more tolerant world, be easier and even necessary to prop up that cardboard self and then shove into its own shuttered room — as lover, life partner, trusted friend, authentic self — before stepping out to greet the wary world.
But in San Francisco, in 1983, our power was “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” — strolling with utter unconcern all the way up Castro Street. In Tennessee, I would never have believed what I saw now: men in leather chaps with pierced nipples, fastidious butch women holding hands with their classy girlfriends, or folks in everyday business casual, excepting a studded leather bracelet and nose ring. The first time I walked down Castro Street, I went back to my room and slept for most of the next two days, buoyant and dazed by such manifold excess, this fantastical city. The woman I was staying with, a summer fling from Tennessee who’d moved to San Francisco months earlier — whom I’d decided I could not live without — placed candles by the bed, then silently retreated.
Months before I left Tennessee, I agreed to be interviewed by a friend of a friend for a local publication. Her questions addressed the matter of being a gay person in Nashville, the city where I lived. How did I experience myself and my life — especially vis-à-vis this Southern, deeply conservative city?
I remember my tone as almost obsequiously gracious, as if grateful for even this acknowledgment. The pull quote used was my plea that gay people be seen for their character, and not merely for their sexual orientation. There were no photographs or last name used, but as a precaution, I asked to be called “Julie.”
I hated the lying, the quivery creeping about. But back then I didn’t dare to come out beyond a small circle of friends. I had no taste for twisted stares, the silent pillory. Yet I found nothing in myself to merit the others’ contempt, much less my damnation to an eternity in hell — a fate I sometimes believed awaited me, or sometimes fiercely rejected as a belief rooted in ignorance and fallacy. It helped not at all that I was a cradle Catholic, ingrained almost from birth with an unquestioning faith in the church’s moral absolutism. But what I could and did reject — however tacitly — was lending my voice to the buzzing chorus of the world’s loathing.
Nor did I want my summer fling, which ultimately became a lifelong friendship, to exist as something secreted in a drawer, a thing so terrible that if revealed, might shatter my delicate “Don’t ask, don’t tell” contract with my home town. Why should I not celebrate this relationship, announce it alongside old friends’ happy announcements of boyfriends, marriages, children. Clutching a cloak of secrecy with its numerous folds and twists was exhausting and painful.
I often thought of Rilke’s words: “Where I am folded, there I am a lie.”
How uncanny, I would later think, that this woman I could not live without just happened to be living in San Francisco.
Also in those final months, my friend Andrew, a session violinist who had studied at Juilliard and who to me seemed the embodiment of worldly élan, told me that he was afraid of the gay cancer. Had I heard of it? We were at a restaurant, speaking softly. I said that I had and went on to somewhat blandly reassure him. I thought that a cure would soon be found and told him so. He was not reassured. His eyes darted, then stopped at me, slanting with a great worrying distress.
He lived for seven more years.
But on that night, I doubted I would ever meet anyone with AIDS, so named by the CDC in 1982: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. In 1983, scientists discovered what causes the syndrome, and they called it HTLV-III/LAV (human T-cell lymphotropic virus-type III/lymphadenopathy-associated virus), a name soon shortened to HIV. It was a type of retrovirus that steadily battered the host’s immune system until there was nothing. In 1983, there was no medical treatment for fighting the virus, only the co-infections. It was a death sentence.
Weeks after I arrived, with ample restaurant experience, I was able to find work as a dinner cook in Castro Street’s largest and blingiest gay bar and restaurant, Café San Marcos, later called The Café.The restaurant was downstairs. I was shy in my first few weeks there, not even quite aware that the bar was upstairs. But the Café was a revelation. I had never before experienced or worked with a group of people — or even a single person — so merrily, brazenly out.
The walls I had crouched behind for so long began to drop away. Slowly I began to experience myself not as a kind of perverse anomaly but as an individual with full rights and dignity. The recognition was startling.
The following summer, on a bright Sunday in late June, I attended my first Pride march. I was one of about three hundred thousand celebrants all variously standing on bus benches, holding on atop light poles, pushing along the sidewalks to rejoice in a four-hour parade that, for me, appeared as an imaginary adventure come to life. Miles of contingents walked, danced, or rolled past on fancifully ornamented floats or even wildly festooned cable cars. Who or what was not represented? There were politicians, clergy, doctors, lawyers for this or that, four hundred dykes on bikes, lesbians who were mothers, gay men who were fathers. There were corporations, churches, bars, restaurants, theaters, political alliances, social alliances, exotic collections of fetishists, exuberantly frilled drag, leather in all its arcane permutations, costumed figures of mythology. Occasionally, a marching band might step past, performing a rousing version of “San Francisco.”
Such a joyful, extraordinary day. If there was a closet anywhere in San Francisco, I never found it. In some ways, I came out that day — officially and forever — to the most important person I knew: Myself.
Three weeks after the Pride march, I attended a second march, on the day before the opening of the 1984 Democratic National Convention. This was the National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights, scheduled to attract national media attention as the press assembled for the Convention.
I had volunteered to help with the speaker portion of the event and was near the stage when Bobbi Campbell spoke, with his partner, Bobby Hilliard, standing beside him. Campbell, the self-described AIDS Poster Boy, had a certain notoriety. He and Hilliard had appeared on the August 8, 1983, cover of Newsweek, presenting the first photograph on a national magazine of not only two gay men, but also embracing lovers … and in Campbell’s case, one of only about 3,000 persons in the United States diagnosed with AIDS.
Campbell began by describing his talk as “a message for the nation,” and stated that “lesbians and gay men do not exist outside of a context. We exist in the context of the people we love and who love us.” Near the end of his talk, he called out to the media and to the hundred thousand or so assembled: “We have the right to die and to live in dignity.”
Bobbi Campbell died one month later.
And then the men I worked with began to die.
The first was Jim, my witty friend and a former altar boy, raised Catholic as I had been. The night he died, of internalized Kaposi sarcoma, or “KS,” I dreamed I went to the hospital to visit him, but his bed was empty. I awoke in the morning knowing he was dead, about three weeks following diagnosis.
This would not be my last death dream.
It went on from there: men, my friends, approaching me and showing me some scab or spot on an arm or ankle and asking if this odd shape looked to me like a KS lesion. Sometimes it did, but I always said no or Check with your doctor, which no one really wanted to do. Other things — shingles, weight loss, persistent coughs, unusual fatigue — were nervously questioned as evidence of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, called PCP, a widely seen early sign of AIDS.
Death came so fast. Funerals became as frequent as any social event and sometimes took place in Golden Gate Park or on a beach, where we stood in a circle and held hands and shared memories of a friend’s life.
Mike, another friend, had left The Café and moved to Hawaii to pursue his great passion, which was creating lovely, intricate works of stained glass. He was back within a few years, unable to work, sick. I saw him soon after he returned, walking ahead of me on Market Street. He was wraith-thin, skin like a wrinkle of frail paper, breath slow and laborious. He had been sorry to leave Hawaii, he told me, but it had few medical resources for persons with AIDS. And not many new friends for support.
I imagined his losses as paving stones, each appearing one after the other, each the dispossession of a dream, a hope.
A few years before, Mike was one of a group of men who laughed in delighted wonder when I mentioned, weeks after coming to the Café, that I had never been in the upstairs bar. And it was Mike who grabbed my hand and suddenly led me through the restaurant and up the stairs. He skipped as he leapt ahead and sang: “Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the yellow brick road.” At the top of the stairs, he halted. I halted with him — and then saw before me shimmering sweeps of glass and chrome and high leather bar stools on pale leather floors and men moving and dancing through the room as if, I thought, guests at the poshest, most glittering party in the world.
But when I saw Mike that day on Market Street, he asked soberly that we have coffee. There was something in his expression that pleaded; I wanted to get away from it, even as I knew my discomfort, my distaste, was obvious. That day, I did not dare sit alone with Mike. I would have to acknowledge greedy death clacking its fleshless fingers behind us. But my words for death were crude and pasted together, broken things blanched with dread — of my own future and the futures of the men in my life … almost everyone I knew in that city.
In these years, my terror was a delicate, quaking thing fluttering incessantly beneath my skin, registering shock at every turn. I had no voice to say this: I craved the disappearance of these men, the ones I saw every day staggering up Castro Street leaned onto a cane, or gripping a friend’s arm, eyes gaping, sallow faces spattered in purple splotches, or thick brown-black sores, all of these men glaring stunned, as if suffering some ungodly incarceration that I could see but not possibly relieve. I had moved to San Francisco to have fun, to locate my own safe harbor. This was neither fun nor safe.
I knew that I would never call Mike, and that I would never follow up on that coffee or sit in a park and talk and ask about his stained glass as if this were an ordinary day during an ordinary time, one in which we might share, say, some delectable pâtisserie, a lemonade.The reaper roamed among us, macabre in his black, hooded cloak, plainly intent — for all we knew — on taking all of us. Whose shoulder might receive the next tap? We lived inside a contagion of death and loss.
The fact was, I believed that as a gay person, I was destined to spend an eternity in hell and in the bleakest parts of my being. I imagined AIDS as retribution, which was a theory popular among preachers and the media generally. I told myself that such anxieties were irrational, but they swirled around me like a ruthless black fire that I could not stifle. In these earliest days of AIDS, there was no individual test for the human immunodeficiency virus, only a screening panel for blood donations.
I frequently imagined symptoms in myself. Had I drunk after one of the men I worked with, or had it already spread to me through sex with my girlfriend? Really, exactly how was it even spread? I considered going back to Tennessee, which I persuaded myself to envision as a congenial place without AIDS. I put away any thought that I would again be living in closeted silence, at risk of rebuke and contempt but surely in Nashville, there was no AIDS. And there would be time to repent.
“These are your gay brothers dying,” a friend said to me one night, when I mentioned leaving. “You can’t leave.”
The Shanti Project, one of the two main AIDS service organizations in the City, put out a reading list. On it was a book called Who Dies by a man named Stephen Levine. In some elementary way, I believe the desire for my own truth, a life guided by my own truth, pushed me to buy the book, open it, and begin reading.
Steven Levine wrote that the greater pain is resistance to suffering, and not the suffering itself. He counseled: “Keep your heart open in hell,” and wrote: “Be open to not knowing.” I, control freak that I was, pondered Levine’s words with bewilderment.
But he taught me to walk into my pain. Over the next years, the agony of my fear of death and of my essential unworthiness sloughed off. In its way, this was heaven. I learned to hold compassion for myself, for all of us, those living and dying everywhere around me. I could no longer carry any thought that we deserved our dying, and our inevitable, eternal damnation.
Steven Levine died in January 2016. His last book was entitled Becoming Kuan Yin: The Evolution of Compassion.
In Chinese Buddhism, kuan yin translates as “Observe (kuan) all the sounds of the world (shih), in particular the crying sounds of beings seeking help (yin).”
I learned to hold compassion not only for others, but for myself.
In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot translated shanti, from Sanskrit, to mean “the peace that passes understanding.”
I did not leave San Francisco for seventeen years.
During those years, stories came to me from friends who’d traveled back east, into the small towns and cities of middle America, including cities in Tennessee. Someone’s gay cousin, I was told, was so deeply closeted that he referred to his lover as his roommate; families and coworkers were never invited to their home for fear of being unmasked. Old friends from Nashville, Charles and Tom, recently had celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary with an exchange of rings, but only Charles felt secure in wearing his to work. He worked at Vanderbilt University, where sexual orientation was and is a protected class; Tom worked at a small Christian college and did not wear his ring, lest unwanted questions arise and he lose his job — a genuine and legally permissible possibility.
These stories rose up in my thoughts like tales of some dystopian realm, populated with individuals forced to conceal their essential selves, lest they experience loathing and derision, and be denied certain basic human rights in the world of Pharisaic zealots among whom they lived.
And then my partner, whom I’d met in San Francisco, suggested that we buy a house in Tennessee. She pointed out that the real estate there was affordable and that we would be living near her aging parents, who — as coincidence might have it — happened to live a short distance away in Kentucky. The plan was that my savvy real-estate agent niece would find us the perfect fixer-upper, which we would renovate and flip. Then we’d return to California, filial duties satisfied and pockets stuffed with money.
Considering this, I was not without a sense of unease. I was happy in California. But friends reassured us that the gay ghetto — places like the Castro, Dupont Circle, midtown Atlanta, and many others — were becoming culturally obsolete. Gays were moving to the ’burbs now, finding community among an increasingly tolerant public.
And thus, we went back.
Over the years, old friends had scattered to distant cities or, like Andrew, had died. Eager to present our “new” (ca. 1895) house, we extended dinner invitations to the few who remained.
Charles and Tom joined us on a Saturday evening. But that night had none of the merriment we’d shared during their visits in California. They brought a housewarming gift, an oddly shaped chip and dip bowl I had noticed days before on a bargain table at Pottery Barn. Moments after arrival, they asked for tumbler glasses of ice, over which they sloshed bourbon straight up, no mixer. During the evening, Tom’s treasured wit showed itself in dry, free-floating sarcasm, some in the form of noticeably irreligious rancor. They left immediately after dinner.
I was startled and hurt by their behavior. Were they somehow disillusioned with us, by our leaving idyllic San Francisco? Or in Nashville, was this who they had become?
I had always enjoyed a close relationship with my nephew, twenty years my junior. There was occasional speculation among family that he might be gay; he had evidently never had a date.For me, he was someone who’d visited us in California and regularly taken me to dinner whenever I was in town. But if he was gay, I’d seen no inkling of it.
He arrived for dinner with a “friend,” a boyishly appealing young man about his own age. Conversation drifted in polite generalities as they sat fixed — somewhat determinedly — at opposite ends of the sofa. Talk continued this way throughout the evening. Never did they disclose stories of a type to expose a vulnerability, deepen a friendship, unveil emotions. Later that night, responding to my query, my nephew haltingly conceded that he was gay and that he and his friend were partners of several years.
After that, we saw him only at family events, albeit usually without his partner — even though by now, he’d come out to his parents and siblings. I sometimes suggested that we get together and have dinner, but his response appeared crafted as a vague uncertainty.
During a holiday event one year, I lamented to him that it seemed difficult in Nashville to make gay friends. He replied that he and his partner loved Nashville, where they were lucky to “have friends who don’t judge us.”
I was briefly astonished. Unsure of exactly what he meant, I replied that I couldn’t imagine that our friends judged us either.
I did not fully grasp that lives move at unequal speeds, and that some step no further than the realm deemed safest.
My new employer, Vanderbilt University, offered benefits to domestic partners. Activating the benefits required that my partner and I meet with an assistant dean of human resources. En route to the meeting, we fumed. “Straight people don’t have to go through this,” we asserted. “This is absurd!”
We were led into a large conference room with broad, polished wood tables and upholstered chairs. Although the day was sunny, I recall the room itself as dark. In my memory, it was either without windows or had windows concealed by drawn shades. Papers had been arranged on the largest table, waiting for us to read and sign. For our part, we’d brought documents, mainly affirming that we shared ownership of our home.
Of the many so-called hats we may wear in our lives, I chose my metaphorical high-dudgeon, I-shouldn’t-have-to-put-up-with-this hat, a righteous imaginary confabulation of my ACT-UP button with its pink triangle and the words “Silence Equals Death,” the California state flag, a photo of Half Dome, and a long shot of Dykes on Bikes from Pride Day — plus anything else I could metaphorically tack on lest the dean mistake me for some closet-case yokel and thus fail to be impressed by my august personage, notwithstanding of course the fact that I was gay. I casually assumed the dean would be a homophobe of the more assimilated variety, too cultivated, too long in the world to reveal her bigotry and not simply do her job, distasteful as it might be.
The assistant dean was a calmly elegant woman of late middle age, endowed with exquisite diction delivered in warm, fluid tones. She introduced herself and we sat. She glanced at our papers, gave them a summary nudge to one side, and began to talk with us about California, and about the northern university she’d been hired away from one year before to implement the benefits plan. And she talked about the South.
She told us about death threats, and phone calls, and mail and email raining down every sundry variant of hell-fire and abomination in the eyes of God on homosexuals. But it was the gay employees’ responses that I found most disturbing.
She told us that not long after the benefits became available, it was not unusual to receive calls from employees, sometimes speaking in a whisper, asking if their supervisor would find out if they had signed up.
She told us of one man, an employee, whose hand was shaking with such anxiety that he barely managed signing his name. I could see the man’s fingers jerking around the pen. Such overwhelming terror he must have felt, making this most momentous signature of his life.
I was stricken. What had we done to ourselves, moving here? Even in the graduate school where I worked, I seemed to be the sole gay person.
Later, I had a recurring fantasy of looking for that man, of running down the halls in some building at Vanderbilt, opening doors and looking in, seeing only strangers. When at last I found him, I saw myself grab his shoulders and shake him, and then get in his face and scream:
“You don’t have to live like this! There are other places to live! Get out. Go. Learn to respect yourself. You’ll never learn it here. Fuck whoever did this to you. They don’t give a shit about you. Learn to speak your own voice.” I would demand to know: “Haven’t we suffered enough?”
Sometimes I would think I was saying this to myself.
Or I said it in remembrance of Mike and Jim and the many thousands of others, some dying alone, disowned, quietly in hospice, an AIDS ward, a sour, faded room in a residential hotel, or in the home towns — welcoming or unwelcoming — to which they sometimes returned.
Nineteen years after the move, I am still in Tennessee, having learned that life, with its many curious engagements and tribulations and rivers of attraction like labyrinthine veins, entangles itself inside the heart so fiercely that a larger movement becomes impossible to conceive or too cumbersome.
I think about that man with his juddering fingers.
It required at least a decade before I could add to my fantasy. In the addition, once I stopped shouting and shaking, I paused and put my arms around him and hugged him tightly for a long time and told him it was okay if he stayed. I understood. Finally, I forgave his trembling hand.
I understood that I would be okay, anywhere, and that a voice I repeatedly heard among all the sounds of the world was my own voice, saying the truth whether anyone could hear or could not hear.
Judy Anne Wilson is a member of the Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville, where she is writing a memoir of the AIDS years in San Francisco.