A few nights ago at dinner out with new friends, our getting-to-know-each-other small talk circled around to coming out to our families. Our stories all had variants, but one thing seemed universal: how the presence of AIDS smoked the edges of each instance. Mine came at the end of a most challenging year, one spent concurrently pursuing a performing arts career while caring for my ex. My family–the one into which I was born–had nary a clue about my troubles. Up to that point I harbored a belief that a conversation with them (and I’m thinking about my mother especially) about who I really was would never come. To bring it up then would create unnecessary worry that I was vulnerable to disease; also unnecessary would be to challenge their impression of me as the benign good son, a role I’d played all my life.
I was outgrowing the part. My ex’s sickness, and the drama that played out between him and his parents had impacted me alongside something else roiling inside: my resting state of fear, alternating with fury. I didn’t realize how angry I was at it until a rare phone call from my mother came one evening after a day at the hospital. She was full of happenings back at home, anecdotes about who had a baby, who got shot or the goings on in the lives of my siblings. Rarely had she or any member of my family asked how I was doing, which would’ve been fine ordinarily. That night it wasn’t. I was too full of pain, too consumed by the sight of my skeletal ex-lover, and a death-by-AIDS inevitability I wasn’t sure I could handle. That night I told her the truth about him, and me. It silenced my mother to the point that I thought, oh no I’ve done it. But Mom called the next day and wanted to know everything. After years of feeling emotionally distant from my family, my confession put us back on track.
It’s World AIDS Day. I can’t un-see that era of death, of hopelessness, but as the new Broadway play The Inheritance notes, subsequent generations fail to grasp the enormity of what went down. It would be cold comfort to think that those of us who survived—wounded, resilient—took a bullet so they wouldn’t have to. The truth is, they’ve got new stuff to grapple with, as previously thwarted threats (zenophobia, racism and white supremacy, elitism, dictatorship) shadow us once again. But it’s beyond stupid to believe that AIDS is no longer an issue. It’s still here, and as long as we breathe we must stay vigilant. Let’s not forget.