The release of HBO’s The Normal Heart stirred up Shadley Grei’s memories of how his own coming out was impacted by the start of the AIDS epidemic.
It feels like I stopped denying the truth of my sexuality when I was 11 or 12 and was immediately sucker punched with the news of a newly discovered “gay cancer.” I was just starting to process how hard my life was going to be as a gay man and now I was being told that it didn’t really matter if the bullies got me, because AIDS was going to kill me anyway. Being gay equaled death one way or another.
Self-acceptance tasted like a shot of cyanide.
I was a senior in high school when Longtime Companion was released and it was a brutal double-edged sword of a film. On one hand, it was the first time I saw gay men portrayed as real people. They were cute men with honest lives, true friendships and happy love lives. I wanted to live in that movie and know those people, BE those people. On the other hand, it was also the first time I saw the devastation of AIDS, and it destroyed me. I was so angry that this was the life I had been given. I was in the final few months before jumping into post-high school adulthood and this was the world that was waiting for me.
At 20, I finally said “I’m gay” out loud which was met with a resounding “duh” by everyone around me, including the girl I was dating at the time. Even with the truth finally out and my tribe still firmly intact, it would be another two years before I would finally have my first sexual encounter with another man. While it should have been a Hollywood moment, it was, in fact, a frustrated desire to simply get it over with. The experience was such that I actually wondered if perhaps I was wrong about my sexual preference. It wasn’t awful. It just didn’t feel that different emotionally than it had with the few girls I had slept with.
Then I met Joe.
I was working in a video store and was manning the counter by myself on a slow night during the week. This was back in the day of VHS tapes that were out on the shelves and customers brought them up to the counter to be checked out. We had a TV where we played what we wanted, and I had decided to play a collection of Annie Lennox music videos, in case my gayness needed an even bigger rainbow spotlight.
This insanely handsome, tall, Italian man my age emerged from the video shelves and asked if the video I was watching was available for rent. I have no idea how I looked or responded, but I felt like a cartoon character whose eyes bug out as my heart rips through my chest to pound on the counter as I melt into a puddle of giggles and humiliation. Whatever my response actually was, it apparently didn’t chase him off because we talked for a few minutes about Annie Lennox, movies and the laundry he was doing at his mom’s house a few blocks away.
After he left, I scooped up all the shattered pieces of my cool and did what any sane person would do. I locked his account so the next time he came in, the only way it could be unlocked was if an employee first read him the message I had left that said he should call me the next time he’s doing laundry so I can keep him company. Yes, I actually did that.
It actually worked and, I kid you not, he called me on Valentine’s Day. I was clearly in serious trouble.
He invited me to his parents’ house and we laid on the floor to watch an art-house film he had picked out. Actually, he watched the movie while I mostly watched the way the TV cast shadows and lights on his face. I was in awe of how close this beautiful boy was to weird little me. This was definitely my Sixteen Candles moment and Joe was my Jake Ryan.
As he walked me to the door after the movie, he told me he’d had a good time hanging out. My grandiose and Hollywood-like response was to push him against the wall and kiss him as if he held all the secrets to make sense of my life taped to the tip of his tongue.
When I pulled away, I said, “I really hope you’re gay.” To which he breathlessly replied, “If I wasn’t before, I would be now.” That was it. I was in love.
We had an instant, glorious, sexy, fun connection and for the first time ever I started to relax into the idea that maybe, just maybe, everything was going to be okay. I was going to be happy. And loved.
Then Joe told me he was HIV-positive.
We were lying on my bed a few days after we met, talking and laughing, when suddenly Joe got very serious and said he had something to tell me. The minute the words left his lips, it felt like all of my veins turned to razorblades. Everything hurt from the inside out. I couldn’t comprehend the pain and cruelty of the situation. All of the fears from childhood were first dispelled by feeling a love I hadn’t thought would be mine to experience and then slaughtered by the fact that such a love comes at the price of death.
This was the early 90s. Treatments for HIV were progressing but it was still very much seen as a death sentence. I told him that it didn’t change anything and that I wasn’t going anywhere, I just needed some time alone to process it. I promptly left and went to the video store where I worked and told one of my best friends, who also happened to be the last woman I had dated. The minute I said “Joe’s positive” out loud, I fell apart and she held me as we slid to curl up together on the floor.
Joe and I tried to maintain our relationship but it was complicated in ways that neither one of us could really manage and things imploded three months later. He was the first person to whom I said the words “I love you” and knew I meant it with every ounce of my being, just as I knew it was impossible for me to stay with him.
I wanted to be braver, stronger, smarter than I was, and Joe wanted to pretend that nothing was wrong. I asked him once what we would do if he got sick and his response was, “I don’t know. What will we do if I grow a third eye?” We were both in denial and far too fragile to know how to deal with the time bomb in the room so we broke up, and I moved away.
After a few months, I wrote Joe a letter to apologize for the way things had played out and to ask if he would see me. In return, I received a scrawled letter from him that looked like he had written it with his non-dominate hand. In it he said that he had no hard feelings toward me, but that he didn’t want to see me because he had had a stroke and didn’t want to see anyone.
Two months later, my sister called to tell me that Joe had died. He was 25.
I drove back to town and headed straight for the graveyard. I had missed the funeral, but I was going to have my good-bye. There was fresh snow in the graveyard and I had no idea where Joe was buried but it was a small cemetery, so how hard could it be? As it turns out, harder than you think when you realize that they don’t put names on the gravestones until later.
So, there I was in this tiny cemetery in a residential area of a country town, stomping through piles of snow, trying to find the resting place of my great, tragic, beautiful love. Frustrated and overwhelmed, I started screaming at Joe. At the injustice. At his refusal to see me. At my own fear. At the way none of it made sense. I yelled at him for not letting me see him. I told him how much I wanted to punch his stupid face if only to have him alive for few minutes more.
I finally found the pile of dirt that indicated a freshly covered grave. As I knelt beside it, I pulled from the snow a ribbon from a wreath reading “Brother and son, Joseph.” As I wrapped it around my fingers, I exhaled the loss and inhaled the memory of his beauty, of his kiss, of his hands wrapped in mine.
Kneeling there, whispering my good-byes, I looked up and noticed how close I actually was to the houses that lined the perimeter of this tiny cemetery. I had a flash of how it may have looked to some little old woman to look up from doing the dishes to peek out the window to see a crazy man stomping through the graveyard, screaming to the clouds and cursing to the snow. It was appropriately ridiculous, I thought, and I knew Joe would agree so I did the only thing that made sense in a senseless situation.
—Photo Kate Ter Haar/Flickr
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