I know an awful lot of dead people. I was thinking about that the other day because a friend sent me some old pictures from early ACT UP demonstrations. Every time I see photographs or videos of that time, I find myself identifying who’s still alive and who’s dead. It makes me feel old.
I have several friends in their late fifties and early sixties who say that everyone they knew when they were younger is dead. And playwright and gay activist Larry Kramer has been talking for...well, decades now, about his address book with all the names of dead people crossed out.
We don’t really talk about death and dead people anymore. That is a conscious choice. I can still remember when we switched over, sometime around 1995, from being People With AIDS to being People Living With AIDS. The glass-half-full people wanted to emphasize that we weren’t dying, but living. Of course, that took some convincing, since at the time people were still dropping all around us. When ACT UP created posters that said, “We are all living with AIDS,” a friend of mine grumbled, “Yes, but some of us are going to live a lot longer with AIDS than others.”
It’s a relief in some ways, this silence about the past. No one particularly likes to dwell on the topic of death, and for too many of us, it had been inescapable for years.
But I wonder sometimes if maybe we need to start talking about it again, if only now and again. I wonder if the memories we’re carrying around haven’t, for some of us anyway, become a burden that we feel obligated to carry because we survived.
For me, it’s usually a kind of background sadness. I’ll pass the apartment building where David died. Or I’ll realize that I’m standing on the street corner where I made out with Randy—now dead—late one night after a party. Nothing major, really. But then I wasn’t in New York for the first awful ten years.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, everyone recognized that basically all of New York City was going to need mental-health care. There are posters in the subways right now advertising services for people who are still bothered by the memory of that day. And there’s been a lot of fascinating research into posttraumatic stress disorder and depression and other long-term effects of the attacks. Some of my friends lived for almost 20 years through a flood of death, illness, fear and sadness. And when effective treatment came along and the dying slowed—at least in much of the developed world—everyone assumed that things had gotten better, that we didn’t need to think about it anymore. But I don’t think that’s true. I think those of us who were in the middle of it were deeply affected by what we experienced and that it affects the choices we make today. I wonder if that’s not partly why the depression rate among gay men is about three times higher than among straight men.
Because of my memories of those times, I try to appreciate life and the people special to me. But I can also see that I have to fight off an ongoing fear that things could go suddenly, terribly wrong, that the worst-case scenario is also the most likely. And that, too, I think, comes from the bad old days.
We’re very focused on living with AIDS. This magazine, for instance, is usually filled with helpful hints for dealing with irritating side effects, advice about safer sex and nutrition and cheery and inspiring stories about people making the most of their lives. And most of the time, that’s how it should be. But maybe once in a while, we need to stop and remember what happened to us. Maybe if we made some room for our sadness, we wouldn’t be so depressed.