A generation later, Kile Ozier believes the gay community has still not healed from the ravaging shame and grief that accompanied the AIDS crisis.
Thirty years ago, it hit.
We were blindsided.
In the midst of a newly-realized freedom to be ourselves, as we embraced and gave momentum to our freedom to celebrate and appreciate ourselves as Beings, fully deserving of the Sunlight and Music, we suddenly found ourselves at siege, stalked and felled by an insidious, savage virus.
Sneaking across the dance floors, pride parades, social gatherings and festivals; insinuating itself into relationships casual to deep, this virus deployed its forces and attacked a nascent community, turning affection and attraction to mortal risk and taking down beautiful youth in its stride.
Tens, hundreds, thousands … we watched as healthy became weak, then frail, then gone. One after another of our friends and loved ones would wither in weeks. Becoming gaunt and baleful figures as they faded to the periphery, then out of sight, then dead.
Dead at 22, 25, 30…
It was a nightmare. Those of us who weren’t yet infected moved onto the battlefield, catching our brothers as they fell; one, and another, and another, and another… Finding beds and roofs as boys and men were thrown from their homes by fearful families and friends; creating lifelines for food, sustenance, domicile; offering shoulders on which to cry, shoulders of men and women just as bewildered and afraid as were the men whose ravaged heads would lean upon them; building support for the dying as they needed to talk through what was happening, even as we did not yet understand it…
Week after week.
Burying hundreds of them. As we gathered to bury and remember one, others would be dying in hospice, hospital or home. The onslaught was relentless and our government was unresponsive. This was all on our shoulders.
I can remember, vividly, being required to don a hazmat suit simply to enter the hospital room of a dying friend. Seeing him, dwarfed by the array of machinery and tubes that surrounded him as he lay, frail and frightened, waiting for….what? A cure? A rescue? A reprieve?
Only Death was on its way. There was no averting it, no stopping it; we simply had to deal with it. And that, we did.
There was no time to grieve. Tears where shed, services were offered and attended; but grief is personal, and a process. A process that that requires time and introspection. A wound is opened with a death that calls for a healing that is organic, not instant.
With this epidemic, our psyches were savaged with myriad wounds; a relentless volley of Saint Sebastian arrows, cutting us all even as we moved across the field of battle to gather and treat the dying and dead. There was no time to grieve.
No population is prepared for mass deaths; a war can scar entire populations, and those scars can be carried by the afflicted generations to the end of their natural lives. In such instances, though, the societies that support the scarred generations are sympathetic, empathetic; officially and personally reaching out to the supporters and survivors with succor, counsel, comfort.
Not so with us.
Exacerbating the effect, the damage to our psychological and spiritual beings, was the fact that our own society turned its back on us; unresponsive and unsympathetic, our government, churches and general populations left us to deal with this ourselves, as though we deserved what we got.
The isolation created a damaged community. The intensity of that first decade is virtually impossible to articulate; living under a black cloud of portent as we dealt with the legions of falling loved ones.
As we handled the practical, we paid for it with our own psyches. Shelving our grief, death upon death, as we “handled” our crises; I believe that those of us from the various front lines accumulated profound damage to ourselves. Damage that has gone virtually unappreciated and unaddressed as a nation; bequeathing a generation of invisibly damaged men and women.
I believe that we have yet to fully grieve. Further, I believe we see this manifest in the proliferation of self-abuse throughout our populations. Crystal meth, barebacking, alcoholism, dysfunction on myriad levels and across the spectrum of our societies.
My sense is that, once we—collectively and individually—put the experience on our virtual shelves, we decided to leave it there. This collective grief, the individual grief, has not been dealt with and it is dealing with us; leaving vast numbers of us unable to maintain healthy relationships, unable to nurture a healthy relationship with even ourselves.
The memories of the experience have become academic. We give voice to remembrance and healing; but I sense an unwillingness to actually open the box and truly feel the loss. Without the pain, there can be no healing; and none of us truly wants to feel that pain, I believe. Yet, we must.
This wound must be opened in order to heal.
I don’t have a universal answer. My purpose in writing this is to open awareness, open individual minds to the sense that this monumental, disempowering, brutal experience remains inside of us, waiting to be addressed. It has nested for up to thirty years, it has affected us and everything around us for all of that time in ways we may not even perceive.
We must deal with it. We owe this to ourselves; we owe it to those whom we’ve lost to recover fully, and to never forget.
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Image credit: Elvert Barnes/Flickr