09 October 2014

Stockton College Speech Notes (Delivered On 10 Oct)

I want to thank Lydia for inviting me to speak today.

Opening remarks, nervous, first time.

I was asked to come speak to you about the A.I.D.S. crisis in the early years.
I'm not going to bore you with a million statistics and graphs, and I'm of an age where a Powerpoint presentation is way beyond my skills so I'm simply going to tell you my story from my point of view.
Considering I lived through it, I have a unique perspective on the history of the crisis.

I always knew I was gay, from a very early age. Growing up in a small town in the Collingswood area I was the ONLY gay person for as far as the eye could see. And it was nothing like what you have now and conveying what that is like to your generation is nearly impossible. I knew nothing about being gay and I knew no one who could help. No Internet, no magazines, nothing. But my childhood years were idyllic, my friendships were tight and I have remained friends with many of them to this day.
Eventually, after my parents divorced I moved in with my father in Atlantic City, and as a young teenager, for the first time, I was thrust into a world completely different from anything I have ever experienced up to that point. Although AC is not exactly a big city, it was full of cultures and races and people I have never encountered up to that point, my freshman year was at a preparatory school and there wasn't much diversity there.
School was strange to me, especially being gay and I never fit in. I was bullied and picked on, I hated going to certain classes, I'm sure things haven't changed that much.
But one day, in our English class, not your normal English class, it was more of an open forum where we'd discuss ideas and books and language more than simple rote studying, the subject of gay people came up and one of the kids said, 'Don't get off on New York Ave., that's where they all hang out!'
Needless to say, when I left school that day, I got off the Jitney at New York Ave.
I had no clue what I was in for. The street was alive with my people! I couldn't believe it.
Discuss the street, bars, restaurants, people, boarding houses. Snake Alley.
At that time, the gay population in AC rivalled New York and San Francisco. It was incredible.
And it was all in the open. We even had a gay beach in front of the Claridge.
A short time later, I went to my first gay bar, no one checked IDs back then, and saw things that schooled me about gay life instantaneously!
After that, I started going out to the nightclubs and that's when I saw someone from school for the first time, a lesbian named Lydia, ahem, although we called her Libby. She was just as shocked to see me.
Needless to say, we became the best of friends. The next day at school, glitter still on her eyes from the night before, she showed me a version of ACHS that I didn't know existed. She outed EVERYONE to me! There were gay teachers, many of the students were gay, and many of the most popular ones, and I was astounded that all of this was right here in the school right under my nose.
As I got a older, the popular culture began to change, MTV was HUGE and showed America that there were all sorts of people out there. Annie Lennox and Boy George with their gender-bending looks advanced the notion that being gay was not icky any more, and it became very fashionable. And films like 'Making Love' were being shown, putting the gay thing centre stage. Suddenly, I was popular, at least in certain circles, and I felt accepted in a way that I never had before.
I had a few boyfriends at the time, now that I think about it they were much older, but it was nothing long term. I wasn't  even worried about getting anything because everyone said you just go to the clinic and they'll give you some meds and you're back to business the next weekend. I wasn't very promiscuous but I was active, I was a horny teenager and there were thousands of gay men out there to meet!
Now, growing up, my family was always very newsy, we watched the morning news shows (I remember when GMA debuted) and we watched the news at dinner and discussed current events at family gatherings, some getting very heated. I never stopped being this way, I had subscriptions to Time, and Science magazines and I read The Press every single day.
I began seeing these odd new reports, buried in the back pages of the mags and papers, about this mysterious disease that seemed to be affecting Haitians and druggies and gay men. And then, as time went on, the articles were closer to the front, and getting longer. And then they began naming it. G.R.I.D. gay related immune deficiency or the gay-plague but the mystery of it deepened. How was it spreading? Why was it spreading?
But things in AC continued humming right along, the parties and the clubs were packed, the restaurants and the boarding house were full, it was all a gay ol' time here on New York Ave.
But I was intrigued. And I started seeking out whatever I could find about this new disease that was showing up in the gay world. I was curious as to why it only seemed to affect these certain populations. At that time, we knew NOTHING, and there was so much misinformation out there.  But I continued to read on, trying to figure out why this was spreading and why it was happening.
The gay population in AC started talking about it, too, since, by then, it was becoming front page news and was on the broadcasts. Now, the people affected were dying.  And at an alarming rate. The big cities like New York and Frisco began showing large rates of infection and the cancers and lesions were popping up everywhere and they still had no idea what was going on. It was getting scary.
But then the link was made that the transmission might be blood borne, and that gay sex was what was transferring the disease to the next person. Once I heard that, it made sense to me, because sharing needles also involved blood. Personally, I became a monk at that point. I was scared out of my wits and in the prime of my youth, I did not want to risk my life.
Unfortunately, many gay men did not believe that was how it was transmitted. They considered that an attack on the gay lifestyle, the free love, free sex, reckless abandonment, the whole concept of being a gay person, they took the link to be political  and not medical and didn't change their habits.
As the years went on, of course, we accepted the fact that H.I.V. was being transmitted sexually but, curiously, as we watched the news reports of people dying in all the large cities through the mid eighties, we here in AC seemed to be an oasis, no one was obviously sick, no one had lesions, no one had anything as far as we could see.
But a little organisation started called the South Jersey A.I.D.S Alliance and we dutifully paid tribute but we thought it was for THEM not US and most of us continued on.
Until it hit us.
Yes, we were mercifully a few years behind the curve but when A.I.D.S. hit the island, it made sure to make up for lost time.
Now we started hearing about so-and-so being sick. Oh, I heard so-and-so was at that A.I.D.S. doctor, Miss Thing saw him there. Oh, did you see so-and-so, he don't look good. We still didn't have a handle on how dangerous this was, or how devastating it would become.
Until our friends started dying.
Once we hit the 90's, the crisis was on our doorstep like a hurricane.
How can I convey to you the horror of that era? It's really hard to give you an idea of what was lost during those days. Imagine, if you will, that a third of your Facebook friends were to die within a year. I lost that. And more. At one point, I  started going to funerals more than I was going to the club. One of my closest friends committed suicide once he found out he was infected, because back then it was a death sentence and he did not want to die suffering. I went to the hospitals to sit vigil at the bedside of my friends, cooling their skin, taking care of the lesions, giving what little comfort I could and seeing them waste away right before my eyes. They looked like zombies, or skeletons, or Holocaust survivors, so thin and sunken. Grey skin. Sores. It was heartbreaking to see these once healthy and loving and vibrant people wasting away and there was nothing that could be done.
And then the backlash started.
Where once it was a badge of honour to be gay, or to know someone gay, now we were pariahs. And not just to the straight community, who blamed us for the disease we had no idea we were spreading, but amongst our own people. Suddenly no one would touch anyone. No one wanted to get sick. It was taboo to even mention someone's name that was infected, as if the simple act of saying their name out loud would magically infect you too. We were so scared. Scared to live. Scared to love. And we were getting bashed and hurt and vilified. And we were dying. Dying horrible deaths.
And that's when we started to find our strength, in the bleakness of that horrendous crisis, we realised that no one was going to help us and we had to FIGHT BACK. We had to ACT UP! We had to FIGHT A.I.D.S.
I went to ACT UP rallies here in AC and we were screamed at and made fun of but we screamed back and made a statement. We began to get angry and we wanted something to be done.
One day, all the magazines and newspapers and galleries in New York did A Day Without Art, blacking out all photographs, and artwork, and fashion, and everything that the gay community excelled at to hit home to the wider community that we matter. That we all contribute to this world and that if we lose this community, we lose a lot more than just a few undesirable people. We lose our humanity.
But we in the gay community in Atlantic City also saw a greater need. Our friends were so sick and they had nothing. The medicines at the time were experimental and expensive, and they were too sick to work to afford them. That's when we came up with our Miss'd America Pageant, a fundraising spoof to raise money for the South Jersey A.I.D.S. Alliance because they were our home-grown organisation and they helped our friends right here. The people we danced with. We ate with. Our roommates. Our friends.
We did other benefits, ceaseless benefits to raise money because there was no money to be had. The president, Ronald Reagan, wouldn't even say the word A.I.D.S. Imagine if he made a speech to rally the entire scientific community to find a cure at that time, imagine how many people would still be here.
It was so hard, the fights were so hard. GMHC in New York and other organisations popped up in every city, fighting to get funding, to get treatments, to release drugs, to get help, to raise awareness. There was nothing, because it was just druggies and gays dying and no one cared.
But over time, we began to get angels and heroes. Poor dear Ryan White became the poster child, literally, of how A.I.D.S. was NOT a gay disease but everyone's disease.
Finish with how we began to change perceptions, how things changed.
Friends from youth. A whole generation missing. Friends from now.
Talk about getting tested at the Oasis.
Talk about Jimmy Hyde.
But remind them that the crisis is not over, you buried Shante Jefferson a few months ago, and that she died of A.I.D.S.

1 comment:

  1. Mortimer, as always, you put 'it' right out there, in human and simple terms, in ways that someone who has no clue can begin to understand. I love that you share your story.