Almost half a century ago, in a landscape far, far, away, there were a gaggle of gays who, like an ostentation of peacocks, came swirling out of their respective private hellholes called closets and preened and pranced their way down fantastical landscapes of freedom and fanaticism. Life seemed overwhelmingly good. Long overdue. Well deserved.
Then, they changed the world.
How profoundly can only now begin to be assessed. Watching “The Americans” the other night, that muted, grey-scaled, slick-hot, Washington, D.C. based, spy series about relations between the USSR and America, I was memory-poked by a quick, passing reference as two Russian spies were chatting about their plans for entertaining their visiting Russian dignitaries. They had arranged a fun-filled evening at Pier 9 “the hottest new disco in town”.
It was first and foremost a gay disco. An infamous force field that held the young and the restless so firmly in its gravitational pull that even after the club closed, the party would carry on in the parking lot until dawn.
Now whether I actually partied away the night on the dance floor with bona fide KGB agents or not, I know that Senators and Congressmen and socialites of all stripes were, in fact, lining up to get into “our” party spot. Within sight of the Capital building itself but still on the seedier side, “The Pier” lent enough danger and grit to the enterprise to make it the edgy, tattered fringe of the social spectrum that became its calling card.
The outré gay were becoming the ultra in, even then.
This was 1971.
Fashion, food, and all things finery were, along with their creators, purveyors, and promoters, busting out all over the country. It seemed that the very doors long bolted tight against us were suddenly flung wide and all things were possible. After the soul-searing sixties, the gold-glittering seventies shown zircon bright with the promise of an equity-fueled future unimaginable a generation before. We knew in our hearts that the protests and pain of the last few years had helped to pave the yellow brick road we are all collectively now dancing down on our way to the promise of Oz.
How were we to know then in our heady, euphoric, haze that we were already being stalked by a new-era plague so insidious, so ingenious, so lethal, that it seemed only possible in the minds of the most cunning science fiction imaginators…or at the very least, the most evil-intended government agencies.
Let the games begin.
My Oz, like thousands of other disaffected young men, was San Francisco and my journey there, unlike Dorothy’s, was solo, semi-unintentional, and like so much of my life, just happenstance. I had been to California once, in 1964, for my Uncle Johnny’s funeral. I was enthralled. Bougainvillea drenched shopping malls lined the suburban streets while freeways 12 lanes wide funneled huge, bright convertibles into and out of the shining City by the Bay. Unimaginable sun. An ocean right there! I had been a pauper and never knew it compared to the richness of this untold life here on the Left Coast.
In truth, I was raised to be an East Coast snob. I had the largess of good schooling, steady if dysfunctional parenting, and enough money to not wonder where the next bit was coming from. The West Coast was where “all the fruits and nuts” landed, or so the contemporaneous wisdom of the East dictated at the time. Only dreamy schoolgirls and Hollywood wannabes could possibly find an attraction there worth the pursuit. I can only attribute my brief sojourn there 10 years earlier as being the genesis of my core-felt need to flee the safety and surroundings that I had thought so country comfortable for so long. That and my favorite, flighty, hippy, cousin was living there with her then husband…..or was it boyfriend…..or girlfriend…or both. Time, the ultimate airbrush, burnishes some memories and erases other details.
When graduation day came, I asked only for a ticket to San Francisco. My mother begged me to take a watch, a car, a summer in Europe, anything but that TWA boarding pass that she knew, before even I had realized, would be my ticket to life……and death. As always, I prevailed.
I stayed with my cousin for a couple of weeks, found a series of part-time jobs, met more handsome men than I ever knew existed, and came to the realization quite quickly that gay had a hometown and I was in the thick of it. I rapidly moved into a flat in the Castro with 5 other young men and proceeded to come to life.
I worked 3 jobs, 2 of them across the Bay in Oakland and Berkeley, necessitating a lot of trans bay tubing and late night busses over the Bay Bridge into the East Bay Terminal. The sight of the financial district lights at night, the Transamerica Pyramid, the glitter and the gloam, never failed to make my heart catch and my breath race. It still does. I never, ever, cross that bridge, even today, without being 25 years old once more and in love with life for the very first time.
Life was not without its challenges even in those heady, early days of ecstasy. Jim Jones, a local cult preacher, murdered 900 people in Guyana casting a pall over the City. The Briggs Initiative was put on the ballot intended to ferret out and ban all gay people from teaching in the state. Street protests continued but on a more personal and local level than even I was used to, having come from the politically charged DC arena.
And then the Mayor and Milk were shot and killed on a November afternoon just before Thanksgiving. It was a social and political earthquake on a magnitude unmeasurable.
By now, I was living with two friends in a flat at 717 Castro St and working at a doctor’s office in Daly City. When the news flashed (no Facebook, no CNN, no internet) the phones went wild. I remember the first call.
Unimaginable. Not true. A cruel hoax.
And I remember the gut-chilling confirmation coming over the portable TV in the break room. I was physically ill, faint, shaking. I had no life experience to contextualize what had happened. Even the Kennedy assassinations, which I remember vividly, did not prepare me for the bone-deep agony of the soul that swept across the City like a pulse from a magnitude 9 quake. A tsunami of grief and finality and fear. They gunned down Harvey and the Mayor….in their offices…in City Hall. Were we, all of us, next?
And then the second body blow. It was Dan White, a fellow Supervisor and former cop and firefighter.
The candle-light march began forming that evening in front of our house. One hundred thousand quietly sobbing people from all parts of the Bay Area, holding flickering candles against the fall chill, slowly dragging one foot after the other down the 2 ½ miles to City Hall where we shook and cried and railed against the very place and people we had just yesterday celebrated as “the most diverse and talented Board of Supervisors” ever assembled. It was a Yellow Brick Road that ended in a cemetery and not a shining City of Hope.
Oz had fractured along the fault line of our moral and emotional foundations.
After grieving came the trial, The Verdict, the outrage once more, this time elevated to a flaming crescendo at the complete injustice of the system and the apparent lack of sensitivity to a populace that was already so gravely wounded and still in rehab for its injuries. I suppose today we would all have been officially PTSD sufferers and, in truth, we were.
But if San Franciscans are anything they are resilient, tenacious, un-stoppable. And so, we went back to the business of living and loving ourselves back to health…or so we thought.
It began like a blemish on a teenager’s face, hard to look at but nothing that wouldn’t pass. But it didn’t. They didn’t. They became the new look of the Castro. Where flannel-shirted, tight-jeaned, robust young men had strutted just weeks before, now the rapidly emaciating, cadaverous, mottled faces of friends filled the foggy horizon.
What was happening? To them. To us. To me????
Fear, fueled by the media and the medics alike, spread like the Santa Annas down south. We were suddenly afraid to touch, to talk, to live. There was nothing we could do. Nothing we could say. We begged the powers for help, for guidance, for treatment….for hope. None came.
And then the dying began.
First there was a friend of a friend. Then came a favorite bartender, the flower guy on the corner, that trick you had last month, last year. Closer and closer they came, like visions of the Walking Dead come to life…only to die once again leaving an emotional hole as big as your heart behind.
And all the while you wondered.
When will it be me?
I’m not going to debate the torrents of rhetoric and the tactics of fear that ensued. All options seemed worthy of at least a public airing. Close the bathhouses? Could be. Pass out condoms? Of course. Educate, educate, educate. Always.
And still the dying continued.
Walking home from work everyday past Hibernia Beach and the bars along the strip, people had taken to posting the obituary pages from the B.A.R. paper. They were so numerous as to outweigh and outnumber the real news; that there was no cure, no treatment, and no hope.
And this is where Generation-Gone began its inexorable march into history.
As the dead grew in numbers and the AIDS quilt began to consume whole counties, a curious and unobserved-at-the-time phenomenon was taking shape. The disappearance of a generation, not unlike after a global war which, in point of fact, it had become. When all the healthy able-bodied young men of a generation march off to battle with an enemy on foreign fronts, many will no return. This front was lethal; almost none came home again.
City centers, once the habitat of all things gay and grand, were being rapidly decimated as those who were left fled, fearing the taint and the touch of the scourge that was ravaging their communities. Maybe if they didn’t see it everywhere, everyday, they might escape its cloying, filamental, attachment. But like a pilot fish on a shark, the barbs were already sunken too deeply to extricate.
And so the dying continued, unabated, passing the years like phone poles flying by the side of the road; if you tried to count them one by one they turn into a blur but taken as a whole, they are months and years and decades of fear.
And then almost without warning, hope.
A combination of hard-fought, expensively wrought, drugs that seemed to slow the death march to a manageable stride. Suddenly, the obits began drying up like the lesions that had preceded them. Men who had previously been making their quilts and planning their memorials were moving about the world as if they actually had someplace to go. Something to do other than die.
And so, the unimaginable began to be imagined. As Goethe once said; “Few people have the imagination for reality”. And the reality became the fact. A precious and precise few had survived the Plague of the New Millennium. And what were they (we) to do with our new leases on life? For the first few years, ne: decades, now, we looked over our shoulders like shy freshmen walking across campus hoping to catch the eye of our dreamed of beloved but afraid of actually having to interact with them. Would it come back? Would it catch me? Would I catch It?
The truth is, we were all already swept away with the ebbing tide. Those of us who have the virus are lucky. We lived to tell the tale. Most did not.
And they are the Generation-Missing. The Generation-Gone.
They comprise an entire contingent of soldiers who fought and lost and left a gaping dearth of maturity in their wakes. A lack that is today felt by the next-in-line, coming of age gay men. Men who know little of the real life experiences that molded their predecessor’s backbones into steel rods of emotional strength. Cores of conscious survival that continue to propel us forward even in the face of advancing years and carrying the weight of those who left us alone to tell their stories.
And tell their stories we must.
We must use our longevity and our largess to inform the next generation from whence they sprung. They might know some history; Stonewall, wasn’t that a bar, once? Yet they lack the fabric that we stitched into quilts that we folded and unfolded each time another friend or lover left us wanting more of the life they did not have.
There is a lost generation of love and life and leadership between them and us. It is our sacred obligation to fill in for our loved ones gone and flesh out the emptiness left by their passings. We must help their names go forward and their energies infuse a new generation with life and hope and resilience.
Cicero said: “The life given us, by nature is short; but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal.”
The lives of Generation-Gone were unnaturally too short. It is up to us to make their well-spent years a memory worth the telling.