First, let me say that today’s posting is long. I hope you have your cup of tea or coffee or can of soda pop handy!
Now to begin.
In Tuesday’s posting, I confided that in 1988 one word sent me to Ramsey County Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, to volunteer in its AIDS clinic. By that time, 107,000 cases of AIDS had been diagnosed in the United States and 62,000 individuals had died of it.
That one word was outcasts.
I encountered it in a cover story published by Newsweek magazine. The article detailed the known history of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. At the time, many believed that HIV originated in the gay community. That has since been refuted.
Another theory then was that it originated in African monkeys. That, too, was later refuted, but now, if I’m understanding the latest on AIDS, some scientists do believe that primates carried the virus for thousands of years and that it may have infected humans when chimpanzees were hunted and eaten.
We may never know where and how AIDS originated, but in 1988 most people in the United States blamed the promiscuity of the gay community for this modern “plague.” The truth is that some sexual practices among gays spread the virus more rapidly among homosexuals than in the larger heterosexual population.
Being born homosexual is as natural to gay men and women as my being born heterosexual. And both homosexuals and heterosexuals are social creatures.
Because of this, a gay culture developed in the midst of the larger heterosexual culture. For gay men in San Francisco—and elsewhere—part of that culture was visiting bathhouses. There gay men met other gay men and often engaged in sexual activity.
Back in 1988, my conclusion from reading about AIDS was that gays and I shared something important. Not our sexual orientation, but our need for approval.
What do I mean by that?
I spent many years of my life seeking approval. When I was five, my parents left me with friends when they moved to a city where a munitions factory had opened. My grandmother told me they’d deserted me because I was naughty. She said they’d never come back for me. No one wanted me.
A year later they returned, but through all my years of growing up, I felt that at any time they could leave me without my knowing why they’d gone or what I’d done.
Me at ten in the fifth grade at St. Mary’s Catholic School
For decades questions hounded me: Why wasn’t I lovable? What had I done that made my parents leave me? What did I need to do so that they—or the friends I’d made—wouldn’t desert me again? Why was I a throwaway?
I grew up feeling unlovable and unlovely and so came to hate myself. I felt myself to be despicable. I could put on a good front for friends, but my home was within my own despised self. Only there could I be the unhappy, discontented, flawed human being I really was. Only there did I not have to try so hard to imitate what being mature meant.
The reading I did made me wonder if homosexuals—not all, but some—also felt they weren’t lovable. When they let themselves be who they naturally were—gay men and women—society, and often even their own family members, turned away in disgust and disapproval.
Back in the sixties, seventies, and eighties that’s what most gays encountered in their lives when they “came out of the closet.” They were shunned. Considered dispensable. Cast out.
My reading led me to wonder if being ostracized might have left many gays hungering for approval. Finding no approval among the general population, they may—I say “may” because this is all supposition on my part—have sought it from one another and from their brief encounters in bathhouses.
To whom else could they go for approval except to one another?
So some of them—at least in San Francisco—met in bathhouses. If I read correctly back in 1988, those bathhouses helped spread the disease in the late seventies and early eighties before a California judge “issued a court order [in 1984] that limited sexual practices and disallowed renting of private rooms in bathhouses, so that sexual activity could be monitored, as a public health measure.”
Why didn’t gay men stop going to those bathhouses before 1984? A year or two before then, doctors had come to believe that AIDS came from the exchange of bodily fluids like blood.
The question could just have well have been why did I keep going to my own bathhouse of self-hatred even after three psychiatrists had helped me understand why I sought approval? Why did I not let go of what was killing my spirit, my very self? For the bathhouse of my own self-hate was doing that as surely as the San Francisco bathhouses were taking away the lives of many gay men.
They had their bathhouse; I had mine. Up until 1984, they didn’t give up bathhouses. Up until 1976, I didn’t give up despising myself.
Because I didn’t think that friends would love me if they saw who I really was. I’d found a home in denigrating myself. I felt safe there. I knew who I was: a poor excuse for a human being. My home was the misery of myself.
And perhaps—I say “perhaps” because I don’t really know—but perhaps those men in San Francisco feared finding out that the bathhouse culture they’d developed was devastating them. AIDS was destroying the only place where they’d found outright approval. Who wants to let go of home?
The upshot of this was that I felt an affinity for these men. I wanted to stand with them in solidarity. I wanted—through the simple action of listening to their stories—to witness their being gifts to and from the Universe. I wanted to honor those whose only desire had been to be themselves in a world that wouldn’t accept them.
They had marched to the tune of their own drummer. I wanted to march with them. I had begun to march to my own drummer in 1976. Now, in 1988, I wanted to march with those whom Newsweek called the modern-day outcasts. The lepers of our time.
(Continued on Tuesday . . . )
Postscript: Perhaps today’s posting makes little sense to you. It may be an example of specious reasoning or convoluted thinking or claptrap. All I can say to this is “So be it.” I’ve never been either an intellectual or a logical thinker. What I have struggled to be is someone who follows the thirstings of her heart for fairness and egalitarianism.
What this posting tries to do is to share with you the 1988 thinking of my labyrinth mind. I’ve tried always to find what connects me to others. So of course, the first question I asked of my reading back then was “What do these gay men and I have in common?”
To find Oneness, we must find commonalities. And that’s what my life has been about. Finding Oneness with all of creation.
PS: Please note that in my Tuesday posting I said the article was in Time magazine. On reflection, I realized that it was Newsweek that came weekly into my home.
Quote about bathhouses and two photographs of San Francisco from Wikipedia.