Several years ago I was introduced to a book that initially caught my eye. A friend of mine, who was probably more in tune with my sexuality than I was at the time, recommended that I read the play "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me." The man pictured on the cover sported an upper body that was just arousing enough to give the book a try. A few pages into the story, I decided that it wasn't the right time to read it. Like many works of literature, you have to read this play at the right time of your life. I realized that if I were to have finished the book then, I wouldn't have been able to truly appreciate it. A few months ago I reintroduced myself to this book that had been sitting on my bookshelf ever since. Again I was amazed at how the art of literature is able to impact life. The play itself was inspired by another literary work, and has itself inspired this article. The way a person is able to select words, and position those words in a particular order to create something genuine, original, and beautiful will always amaze me. As a tribute then, to this work of literature, and indirectly to the play "The Normal Heart" that inspired David Drake, I dedicate this month's column to this script.
Two quotes, each from David Drake's introduction to the play "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me" serve as both an appropriate introduction to this paper, and an appropriate explanation of why this issue is so important to me. "Active homophobia created AIDS." If it hadn't been for the stand-offish attitudes of the media, the CDC, and other organizations that would have jumped instantaneously for nearly any other demographic, the crisis could have remained a crisis, rather than an epidemic. "Although I am not living with HIV in my blood, I am living with it in my life." Watching friends living with this illness, I strive to understand it. I strive to grab hold of the nuances that so many don't care to acknowledge so that I am able to sympathize, not empathize for that would be overstepping my bounds, but sympathize with the infected, the surviving, and anyone else touched by AIDS. It would be a perfect end to this story to do a column on an article I read in the New York Times, reporting the discovery of a cure for AIDS. Until that happens, there will be others, and there will be more stories written down on paper about them. It is both disrespectful to their memories, and an abomination to humanity to leave those stories unread.
SILENCE = DEATH
A Thousand Points of Light
In this beautifully worded segment of "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me" the poetic structure pairs with imagery that is nothing short of brilliant. The scene set by this poetic monologue is a powerful and touching one that tackles a number of distinctly different issues surrounding AIDS in a gently aggressive manner. The premise is that of a young man, sitting on the street holding a candle. He often references the "thousand points of light" that surround him, never differentiating which are the other candles, and which are the stars, he draws illusions of a vigilant memorial to the dead. "We carry the dead," says our narrator, and then goes on to prove it by telling us stories about those that he has seen taken by AIDS. In that way the survivors do literally carry the dead. By passing on their stories and memories, those who are left behind continue to carry those who are no longer with us. In a beautiful and creative way, we have all achieved a sense of immortality, as our survivors carry us into the future, much the way David Drake has done in this part of his poetic drama.
"So be careful when you blink
or think that's it
I can't absorb another memory
'cause someone else is missing."
The first story we hear is that of Gary. Gary is a classic case of what I would refer to as a "visible-infect". Our narrator tells us that he could tell he was sick the first time he saw Gary. However, despite how obvious it was, it was never a part of conversation between the two. As Gary slowly gifts things to our narrator, it becomes more and more apparent that he is getting more and more comfortable with the idea of death. He is carefully finding safe homes for all of his belongings; not an uncommon thing to do when one is knowingly close to death. Gary's character is a gentle one that would never desire anyone to go out of his or her way. His most common phrases start with, "I hate to bother you..." Our narrator, fulfilling his neighborly duties, makes a chance appearance at the hospital to deliver Gary's mail. That chance meeting introduces our narrator to Harlow, Gary's ex-lover who has taken it upon himself to take care of Gary. When Gary returns from the hospital, our narrator stays awake at night and listens to him singing quietly to his tapes. When Gary passes on, our narrator picks up where he left off, helping Harlow in the transition from life to death, as he is also infected. Harlow makes a wonderfully applicable comment regarding a box of tapes that Gary gifted to our narrator. "Listen, those shoeboxes are full of Gary's tapes. But if you don't like any of them, please don't throw them out-just pass them on." Much like Gary's stories, Harlow is concerned that his belongings live on; that someone is carrying Gary as well. A month and a week after Gary, Harlow leaves our narrator's life, and his own behind.
Paul suddenly pops into our lives, as suddenly as he pops into the story. A past lover of our narrator, Paul is a free spirit. As a dancer, Paul was able to avoid any sort of permanence or foundation in his life, always touring, always a new face in a crowd of normal. Paul was always the exotic element in any formula he encountered. "You people-pleasing prick tease," as our narrator lovingly calls him. Yet, despite his need for change, Paul continued to stay in touch with our narrator, and it is our narrator that was called on the night Paul was diagnosed. "Help. What do I do?" A relatively overused question for such an impacting and life altering moment, don't you think? Despite the normality of his question, our exotic dancer promised to come home to our narrator, soon. Months later, a phone call, not Paul, reached home. It was Paul's sister calling to request our narrator's presence. Our narrator, like most people indirectly touched by the disease, displayed a sense of frustration with Paul; frustrated that Paul spent the past 11 months entertaining people all over the country, while he himself was dying a slow death from the inside out. It is so common for those on the outside of an illness to judge those who have it coursing through their bodies. It is easy for us to sit back and wonder why an AIDS patient would refuse medical treatment, or why a potentially infected individual may refuse testing. However, it is much more difficult to look at Paul as a person, and have those same questions. Paul viewed hospitalization and testing as "giving into the negative," and can we blame him? To go to the hospital would force him to face the fact that he was dying, and conversely face his mortality head on. Remaining out of the hospital allows Paul the luxury of fantasy. Perhaps he isn't really infected. Perhaps he is completely healthy despite the disease. Perhaps he has enough T-cells to fight off an entire army of infections. One T-cell count would reveal that his fantasies are nothing more than that, and that in reality, the slightest infection could be his end. So, we are faced with a relatively philosophical question. Is it better to know you are near death, living each moment cautious so as to prolong your life, despite it's lack of enjoyment, or to live each day like the day before, milking it for all it's worth, and living it, rather than living it within the means of safety and caution. Paul's energy and optimism won out on that question, and understandably motivated him to act in the manner he chose.
Our narrator goes on to discuss the funeral proceedings. He was introduced by Paul's mother as, "Paul's friend." Tanya, Paul's sister, insisted be was "Paul's lover," and should be introduced as such. The tension surrounding this tiny detail is obvious, and not as tiny as it may seem. To deny the existence of the life and lifestyle of the deceased is unacceptable. A heterosexual person's funeral is full of stories about his life, his spouse, and his escapades. By refusing to acknowledge Paul's sexuality, his mother has eliminated all of those. How can one talk about his life, and omit his lifestyle from the picture? How can you respectfully console his lover without respecting the gender of that lover? How can you fondly remember a man when you refuse to accept the memory of who he really was? These frustrations fester within the gay community as more and more of it's members pass away, leaving mothers and families to decide the fate of their memories. In this way, AIDS not only takes away a life, but can, also through active homophobia, take away a legacy as well.
Like magic, Paul's story is over. Out of sight, out of mind right? Not as long as we continue to carry him, just as we carry Will, the next memory our narrator shares with us. Will, an ACT UP member, met our narrator at an ATM machine of all places. Together they attend an ACT UP meeting, where our narrator learns that "anger equals action equals life." The clarity that the meeting brings to the clouded vision of our narrator is amazing. Will, like many lovers in a typical gay man's life comes and goes. Did he infect our narrator? Does it matter?
Soon, the stars, mingling with the candlelight, become the dead. "Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder who you are." We ponder the identity of each, and the innumerable mass that is made up by lights, stars, candles, each a memory or a person, a lover, a son, or a brother. "You never-famous, never-counted, never-quoted, never-seen, nobody. Somebody's best little boy in the world." Yet, despite the ambiguity of identity, our narrator confidently says, "I know you." He wonders if maybe they passed on the street, adding, "but it's so hard to see in the night." In this way, like Gary, Harlow, Paul and Will, we carry the dead.
And so I know you.
I honor you.
I love you.
I light this light for you.
in a moment of stillness
in a moment of semblance
in a moment
Special thanks to everyone who continues to read my column each month. I love hearing your thoughts on my columns, and particularly enjoyed reading responses from last month's article. Please continue to read my columns, and to visit my Web site at www.geocities.com/breakingout2000. Thanks also to all of you who sent birthday greetings! Finally, I close this months article with a special shout-out. Josh, sometimes you forget how far you've come. Know that I am proud of you, and that I will always be here for you. KM... You are an amazing young man. You just need to take a step back and realize that for yourself.
I believe in you!
Please feel free to contact me through BreakingOUT, or visit our website!
Travis Stanton, 19, lives in South Dakota. He attends college, majoring in Modern American Entertainment, and is the founder of BreakingOUT, a web based organization for young gay men looking for assistance in the process of coming out.