I am a firm believer that the gay rights movement would be miles ahead of where it is today had the AIDS crisis not happened. Suddenly, equal rights got put on the back burner and simply surviving became the main goal. Some of the greatest activists lost their fight with AIDS and left behind a generation marked by misunderstanding and heartache. Gay people may have been some of the first to have AIDS (or at least the first widely reported), but they were also some of the first people to react to it and to demand treatment and help. If it wasn't for the gay community and their devotion to the cause, research and treatment for AIDS may not be where it is today. In many ways, the gay rights movement lost stream in an effort to save lives and educate others (gay and straight).
My point is that I've been raised in a world with AIDS. From the time that it mattered, I knew AIDS existed and what it was. I will never know what it was like to be a gay man in the 60s or 70s, because I don't know what it's like to not have the fear in the back of my head that I could get it. I'm a smart guy. I know how you get it. I know that it has nothing to do with being gay. I know that I am no more at risk than other sexually active people, yet I can't shake the imagine of gay men dying of AIDS. Inside my head there is a fear that somehow this will be my fate. I use protection. I try not to make stupid mistakes, but it sits there in my head no matter what I do or say. Many gay men, young or old, have this same fear in them. It is part of the impact of the initial crisis.
As a writer, I am fascinated by this topic and my own fear. Many poets and fiction writers who are gay and just a little older than me have devoted so much of their work to writing the stories of HIV+ men. My question has always been, how do I approach the subject? I am an HIV- man who was only four years old in 1986 when the AIDS crisis rocked the gay community. I can't imagine suddenly waking up and realizing half of my friends are dead or dying, yet I feel compelled to write on the topic and to continue to explore what it has done to the gay community, movement, and psyche. I am filled with questions. Does it have to be part of my history and my experience? Do I have an obligation to write about it? Why do I feel so pulled by the topic? Does my interest help push the stereotype?
This brings me to a wonderful book I read a few weeks ago that helped me reexamine my own thoughts about AIDS. It is a new anthology entitled Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS edited by Philip Clark and David Groff. As I said before, I've read plenty of poems about AIDS, but this anthology was different. For starters, a good portion of the poets included are not well known and many got very little published while they were alive. Some, in fact, had no books published at all and still do not. This collection feels more honest and in the moment than most things I've read on the topic.
The poems range in tone, subject, and form. These aren't just AIDS poems (whatever that means). Many don't mention AIDS at all, yet there is something fleeting in almost all of them. A fear of life slipping through your fingers. A call to make the most of it. Carpe Diem. These poems handle a range of emotions and experiences, but feel interconnected in powerful ways.
As I read these poems, I couldn't help but think of myself. I am 27 years old, which is close to the same age that some of these poets lost their lives. What would I have left behind? What would I have said in my final poems? I felt like I was exploring a graveyard and finding amazing treasures just below the surface of the dirt. Yes, some of these poems had never seen the light of day. These truly were writers lost. They were a generation of bright, young people taken by AIDS when they still had so much to offer the world.
I rarely read anthologies cover to cover and in order, but this one I did. After each poet's work, I flipped to the back and read their bios. I wanted to know each of them. Their bios contained other books I'd love to get my hands on, but they also contained the sadness of unfulfilled dreams and desires. If nothing else, this anthology encourages me to write and write and write, because you never know how long you have.
I was moved by so many of these poems. Some leapt off the page, some I immediately read again, and others left me in awe. These poems record vital moments in the gay experience: the prospective of new love or lust, the fear of the unknown, or the loss of a lover or a friend. These poems became a part of me and made me see that my experiences are connected to a greater story. That story has its ups and its downs. AIDS is part of that story, but so is joy, happiness, love, sex, dancing, pride parades, and even fear.
I'm thankful to have this book, and I'm sure it will be one that I'll revisit often. Reading these "persistent voices" made me respect and cherish those that have come before me and those that will come after me. As gay people, we must seek out our own history. We may not be connected through our blood, but we are connected to each other through a shared experience and through the written word.
The AIDS crisis changed the gay community forever and gay literature forever. I am part of the generation raised during AIDS, and I'm interested to continue to watch how my generation of writers approaches the subject. Will our voices be persistent? Will they be lost? Only time will tell.