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Monday, July 9, 2007

Those never met

*Note: Unrelentingly Drawn: The Editorial Cartoons of Danny Sotomayor is open at Gerber/Hart Library in Chicago for the summer of 2007.

When Larry Kramer came to Toronto last year for the International Festival of Authors, I was interested to read Xtra's interview with him. He said some surprisingly hard-hitting things about what has happened in the last twenty years. "It’s as if all those people in the ’80s died in vain," he was quoted as saying. "I don’t see a lot of us fighting and campaigning, I see a lot of us dancing and going to the gym."

Now if anybody else said that, he or she would probably be dismissed as a nagging big sister, like someone who says everybody should quit smoking. But this was Larry Kramer, the founder of ACT UP. His comments made me start thinking about those earlier days and who "all those people" were.

In my life, the people who died were not often those I had known personally. More of them were people whose paths I probably would have crossed eventually, had their lives not been cut so short.

These relationships are defined by their absence. Someone I might have known, I did not know, and the opportunity has been lost forever.

A decade ago, as a newly out lesbian, I discovered that I was a member of something called "the gay and lesbian community." "Gay and lesbian" had a particular meaning in the 1980s and early 1990s. It meant a degree of cooperation between queer women and men that had not happened before, and which has probably not happened since.

That cooperation was around one particular issue. AIDS was seen by those outside our community as a problem for us alone. It was not recognized as a problem for heterosexuals, let alone for the developing world, where it is now an unprecedented catastrophe.

So gays and lesbians responded to AIDS. There was caretaking within the community, and outrage directed at those outside it who expressed indifference or revulsion. The impetus to community was hard to deny: People were dying. Men, many of them young, were dying around us in disastrous numbers, and if "the gay and lesbian community" did not do something about it, who would?

Now there are drugs that did not exist a decade ago. These treatments are "good news," in the way that chemotherapy is good news to someone with cancer. They keep something deadly and incurable at bay. They do not restore any of us to the world of the 1970s, when no one knew about AIDS. And nothing can bring back all the people we lost.

There can be no nostalgia about that period, because it was a time of death. As in a war of self-defence, people really were fighting for their lives. Great love and great art came out of that time, because that was all we could do. What we really wanted to do was to change the way the world was, to open the bathhouses and not have to worry about a deadly disease.

The gay playwright Scott McPherson, who was living in Chicago at the same time I was, wrote about the caretaking that was going on in the gay community. He described the presence of AIDS in his life, in the life of his lover, Danny Sotomayor, and in the lives of their friends.

I wish I had known this writer, but I never met him. He died ten years ago. Danny Sotomayor, a gifted cartoonist and AIDS activist, also died. There is no collection of this man's work.* He should have been drawing for many more years, but instead, he gave his energy to the political fight for AIDS funding and research.

Not enough is left of these men. There is not a lifetime of work for us to appreciate. There should be many more plays and cartoons and other works of art, and they should be about the many joys of life, not just the pain of loss. There is nothing redemptive about the loss of so many people, so many relationships cut short or never started. It is a massive tragedy.

Because there was so much death that could not have been expected, gay and lesbian people were forced to deal with mortality--our own, as well as others'. In many cases, these were people whose families or communities of origin had rejected them, who did not have the comfort of traditional faith. Instead, women and men who may not previously have considered themselves allies came together and supported each other.

It should not have taken tragedy to bring us together. Community life should not be one more life we've lost, along with so many other lives. Art and memories are not enough.

I hope we can continue to love those around us as if it were, as it can be, a matter of life and death.

Published 2003 in Xtra!

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