Saturday, June 30, 2012

Saying Good-Bye to Two Friends

On Tuesday, I shared with you my friendship with Robert and Andrew. Both of them died in late 1991. Andrew first—in a Minneapolis hospital—and then Robert in the VA hospital.
            Andrew’s parents were with him when he died. They had his body cremated and carried his ashes back home where they buried him in the family plot.            
            After Andrew’s death, Robert was admitted to the VA hospital where he died in a few short days. When I visited him there, he shared memories of his life. He especially like to talk about the trip he and Andrew had taken together in the past spring to Winona, Minnesota.
            I still have the photo of them on the bluff above the relentless flow of the Mississippi. Andrew sits on a rock wall, his face alit with laughter. Robert stands beside him, clearly pleased with the joke he’s just told. A spring breeze ruffles their hair as it, too, meanders through their lives.

A bluff in Winona, Minnesota, overlooking the Mississippi.

            That time away had refreshed both of them and perhaps helped them live longer. But when Andrew died, Robert grieved deeply and simply let go of any desire to live without his companion of so many years.           
            His parents came to the VA hospital. His mother wept; his father simply stood there, unsure of what to do. Clearly, his fear of the disease kept him from touching Robert’s hands or kissing his cheek or smoothing the hair back from his fevered forehead. He hovered near the hospital bed, caught in his own dilemma of whether to embrace his son. He never did while I was there, but I’ve always hoped that when alone with his son, he did clasp him close and assure him of love.
            Robert's mother was both gracious and generous when I visited him in the hospital. She encouraged me to stand close to the head of the bed. I held his hands, brushed my fingers against his tangled hair, and sang the songs he’d enjoyed when Andrew had played them on the piano. He responded with a whisper of a smile, and his mother smiled tremulously at me.
            And then it was over. Robert and Andrew were together again. A year later, they were with me in spirit when I stood before a group of friends at the Stillwater Library and signed copies of A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story.
            One of the things Robert, Andrew, Mary, and I had talked about at our prayer meetings was the possibility of that book being published. They were delighted when Crown offered me a contract in July of 1991. Had they been alive, Robert and Andrew would have done a little living-room jig in their joy for me on the book’s publication day.
            I dedicated A Cat’s Life to the three of them: Robert, Andrew, and Mary.
            Volunteering at the St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center was one of the most important things I’ve ever done. I made three good friends—Lon, Robert, and Andrew—and I met many other men whose courage touched my life.
            All of this started with a Newsweek article about the “epidemic” of AIDS. We never know the moment when grace will touch our lives. Because of that, we sometimes miss the opportunity of growth in the enduring human spirit.
            I shall forever be grateful that I read that article and that I was able—for some unknown and inexplicable reason—to respond to the promptings deep down within me that said, “You can do something about this. Will you?”
            In “doing something” for those I met at the AIDS clinic, I did something for myself. And isn’t that the way life always is? That when we reach out to others, others reach out to us and we are twice, thrice, blessed. There is blessing both in the giving and the receiving. And who is to say, which is which?

Photo from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Praying Together

In an earlier posting, I explained that during the three years I volunteered at the St. Paul-Ramsay Medical Center AIDS clinic I attended over thirty memorial services. Lon’s was particularly hard for me as he had become a good friend.
            Two other men with AIDS also became steadfast friends. I spent time at their home, listened to Andrew play gospel music on the piano, and watched Robert repair plumbing under the sink. We ate together and walked in the cool of a summer evening around their perennial gardens.
            Both of them attended the Minneapolis AIDS clinic where Joanne, the nun who had accepted me into the program, volunteered. While there one day, Robert and Andrew had spoken with her about the possibility of a monthly prayer meeting.
            Joanne asked Mary and me if we’d facilitate a prayer group in a former classroom at a vacant school building used by the Roman Catholic diocese for gatherings. Our first meeting was in January 1991.          

            Robert and Andrew, Mary and I were the sum total of the group, which met for six months. We prayed not only in the traditional way but also in the sharing with and entrusting of our lives to one another. Both men were in their late thirties or early forties. Mary and I were in our fifties. Robert had served for a number of years in the navy. Afterward he found a job at the post office where he was still working in the spring of 1991.
            Not able to make a living as an artist, Andrew had a series of jobs through the years. He used his artistic ability in the gardens he designed around their small home in one of the northern suburbs.
            Andrew laughed often, throwing back his head so that his dark lank hair flopped on his broad forehead. Robert, on the other hand, had a wry sense of humor that came perhaps from his years in the navy and his more realistic, pragmatic approach to life. He’d tell a joke and then wait, a gleam in his eyes, for me to “get it.”
            They were a good match, each encouraging the other to tell this story or that. They had planned, as Robert said, “to grow old together.” Andrew chimed in that they already argued "like an old married couple."
            In June we decided to cease meeting because they could no longer easily drive at night across the Twin Cities. Instead, they both invited me to visit them.
            That July, the Senate hearings began on the confirmation of Clarence Thomas whom President George H. W. Bush had nominated for the Supreme Court. In those hearings, Anita Hill alleged that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked as his subordinate at the Department of Education.
            Early in October 1991, television brought those tense hearings into Robert and Andrew’s living room. The two of them, plus Andrew’s visiting parents, and I sat mesmerized by Clarence Thomas’ and Anita Hill’s testimony.
            Wikipedia details the manner in which the “all male Senate Judiciary Committee challenged and dismissed Hill's accusations of sexual harassment.” Andrew and his father totally believed Thomas’ explanations and belittled Hill. They loudly faulted the woman, not the man.
            This was a true learning experience for me. I’ve never gotten involved in the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. But the sexism in that living room astounded me. (I was fifty-five at the time.)

            Later, after Andrew’s parents left to return to their home in an eastern state, I learned that he really hadn’t believed Clarence Thomas.
            “So why did you say all those things?”
            “Because pa was sitting there.”
            “I don’t understand.”
            Robert, who’d remained silent while Andrew and his father denounced Anita Hill, explained: “Andrew’s still trying to please his dad.”
            “By saying what he didn’t believe?”
            “Lots of dads aren’t proud of who we are. This was a chance for Andrew to appear normal to his. Just like any other guy.”
            My heart cried for them both. They had to live—in so many nooks and crannies of their lives—a lie others imposed on them.
                                                                        (Continued on Saturday . . . )

Symbols from Wikipedia.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

For Lon, Who Loved Life

Lon was already a regular at the St. Paul AIDS clinic when I began volunteering there. Whenever he came for an appointment, we’d chat in an exam room while he waited to see the doctor. We talked about books and movies and often about perennials.
Lon gardened with a passion for beauty and design. To help me beautify my rather shaggy garden, he dug up a clump of Siberian iris and presented it to me at the clinic one Tuesday. 

Those purple flowers became the focal point of my garden. Following his advice and example, I began to take seriously the creating of an oasis of loveliness in my yard for myself and the neighborhood.
Another day, in the dimly lit back hall, he and I had a conversation I’ve never forgotten. It began when I asked Lon how he’d managed to live for over two years with his diagnosis: first of being HIV-positive and then of having AIDS. At that time most people lived less than eighteen months.
“Dee, the thing is I don’t let it define me. This disease. I don’t let it define me. I'm not AIDS. That's not what I concentrate on. What I talk about.”
“How do you define yourself?” I asked.
“Not by AIDS or being gay. I like to garden. To read. Movies. I’m a human being. That’s what defines me. I’m a human being who loves life. I just love living.”
We spoke then of other things and he asked me how I was coming along with my grieving for Dulcy. I admitted that the loss of the year before was still fresh.

“You’ve got to let go,” he said. “You’re missing today. Don't let yourself be stuck in the past.”
Lon died in August 1990 in a Minneapolis nursing home. It was a converted Richardsonian Romanesque mansion that may have been—I can’t remember—a hospice established for people dying of AIDS.  When I visited him in a dimly lit, cavernous, first-floor room, he lay on a cot, among many other men also on cots.
Months had passed since our conversation about definition, and AIDS was finally claiming Lon. His mouth showed the effects of candidiasis. Kaposi’s sarcoma had spread over his body. Dementia had set in and he did not know me. He lay on the bed—ravaged by the disease and yet still Lon with his shy smile.
During our final visit, I knelt on the floor by his cot and fed him broth. He raised his head for each spoonful, opening his mouth like a baby bird, trusting that food would be there. And so it was.

A few days later he died. Many of his friends attended his memorial service. Even though my voice has never truly been in tune, I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” because Lon loved that song, as many gay men did. For all of us there, he was a gift to and from the Universe.
Three years after Lon’s death, Tony Kushner received the Pulitzer Prize for his play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The following words from his play speak poignantly to me of Lon: “But still. Still bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do.”

Photo of birds from 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"The Little Prince" in My Life

Today, I’d like to introduce you to Lon. I met him in 1988 when he’d been HIV-positive for a year; two years later he died from the complications of AIDS.

I cannot share with you what we spoke about in the examination room each week. The truth is that now—nearly twenty-two years after his death—I don’t remember the words. I do remember the spirit of the man I met. I wrote about that spirit in 1993, three years after his death.
At that time, I was trying to use the deleted sections of Dulcy’s book A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story to create a companion book. I had the idea to change the sections into twelve habits  Dulcy would share with other cats. Then the idea came to accompany her habits with accounts of how the habits had influenced my life.
For the sixth habit, Dulcy ended her advice to cats with the following words: “When you follow Habit 6 and listen with an open heart, you touch the deep goodness of the one you love.”
Those words inspired me to write about how Lon affected my life. Here are the words with which I eulogized him in Twelve Habits of Highly Successful Cats & Their Humans. Note that I used the name Liam here instead of Lon.

In Saint-Exupery’s classic book The Little Prince, the fox tells his friend, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Only with the heart can one listen rightly too.

Like the little prince, I have had a fox teach me to listen with my heart. That fox was a young man who had lived with AIDS for three years. As he grew old with the disease, Liam began to think long thoughts, to find the hidden depths within himself. He began to cherish silence and solitude.
When we talked, he shared his journey through the squalls of the illness, the deserts of the despair, the forests of new growth. His thoughts seemed to come from deep wellsprings within himself, and the water from these hidden resources gave me new life.
Slowly, but surely, I began to listen to him with both my mind and my heart, to listen to the feelings and dreams and meanings behind his words. I opened my heart to receive these last gifts from my friend. He would soon be gone, and I wanted to remember more than his death. I wanted to embrace the joy of his life. Each story became his legacy to me. Did he laugh? I laughed too. Did he cry? I did too. Did he rave against the darkness of the night? I, too, raved.
I listened with an open heart, and I found the uniqueness of my friend. I learned his heartwish. Not because he told me, but because I watched him live it. I listened to what his actions said. And when I told him he was teaching me to listen with an open heart, my friend said, “You already know how to listen, Dee. Dulcy taught you.”
And he was right. I could listen with my heart because again and again, when days have been dismal and depressing, Dulcy has laid her round, plump body against my chest—her ears perked, her whiskers stiff, her eyes deep pools of love—and waited for my voice.
With my hand resting gently on her back, she has stroked my cheek with a soft paw and purred love. In those moments, I am the love who gives meaning to her life. She hears the deep silences within me.
And from my dear friend, I learned this silence—the silence that enables us to listen with our heart. What is important to Dulcy is invisible to the eye.

On Saturday I will share with you one thing that Lon did say to me. His words changed my life. I do not think I will be betraying his trust. For me these words are his legacy.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Volunteering in the AIDS Clinic

(Continued from Tuesday . . . )

My volunteer work with men who were HIV-positive (they’d tested positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus) or had full-blown AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) began in the late summer of 1988. I continued it for three years and then, wearied by deaths and by being present to these men, I ceased to volunteer.
            By that time, I’d attended thirty or so memorial services. I’d also come to know three men well—Lon, Robert, and Andrew. And I’d learned from Lon just how important definition is. But more about that in another posting.
            Today I’d like to describe a typical Tuesday to you back then.

Freeway into downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.

The drive into St. Paul from Stillwater took a half-hour, but I can’t remember what time the AIDS clinic started or ended. The clinic itself was square shaped.
            On its far left side were the spacious waiting room and the receptionist’s desk.
            In the middle section were six examination rooms—three on each side of a long aisle.
           At the square’s right side were the supply room, x-ray, and staff waiting room. A hall separated them from the exam rooms. Various machines and other paraphernalia the nurses and doctors had to use made this hall a maze to negotiate. The lighting seemed dim everywhere except in the windowed reception area.

            Throughout the day I visited with patients and tried to help them feel comfortable as they waited for one of the two doctors. Volunteers always chatted with the patients in an exam room, not in the waiting room.
            Joanne—the nun who’d accepted me into the program—had emphasized during our interview that patient conversations were confidential. I was not to talk about anything I heard at the clinic to any of my friends. “You are like a priest in the confessional,” she said. “What is said is between that patient,  you, and God.”
            Sometimes, a patient would share something I thought the doctor needed to know. When that happened I asked the patient for permission to tell the doctor.
            Every Tuesday I worked with another woman. For the first two years that was Darlene. During the third year, Mary volunteered and so we changed off and I attended the clinic only every other week.
            Darlene’s serenity spoke to the patients, all of whom responded wholeheartedly to her. Kindness softened her eyes whenever she visited with anyone for she saw and understood beyond the spoken words. I know that the patients could feel her acceptance and nonjudgmental stance toward life. Toward them. She simply enjoyed people.
            My first Tuesday, Darlene, who’d been volunteering for some time, introduced me to the “regulars”—those men who came to the clinic each week. In the following weeks, I came to know their names, their hobbies, their humor, their fears, their dreams.
            As time passed, I began to pray before knocking on each examination-room door. The prayer was always the same: “Oneness, listen in me and speak through me.”
            I had to listen on the knees of my heart. Then I had to trust that my words would be whatever the man inside needed to hear. Words of healing of the spirit perhaps. Or laughter. Or simply words that kept him from thinking about the coming exam.

            Some men wanted to talk. Other chose to remain alone in the exam room. When they politely declined my presence, I simply closed the door and waited until a nurse escorted another patient into one of the six rooms.
            St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center was a nonprofit organization that served the needs of the community, especially on the east side of the St. Paul where many low-income people lived. Nearly all the patients in the clinic were poor or had little. Some were still able to hold down jobs. Others were fairly destitute so there was always a social worker available to work with these men.
            I’ll introduce you to Lon—the patient who became a good friend—in my Tuesday posting.            
                                                                                                (Continued on Tuesday . . . )







Housekeeping: This past Wednesday, I did a guest posting on the blog Tossing It All Out. In it, I shared my thoughts about the difficulties of getting published the traditional way and about what self-publishing asks of writers if they want to reach a wide audience. If you’d like to read that posting, please click here.

Pictures from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Finding a Way to Serve

(Continued from Saturday . . . )

The Newsweek article I read in 1988 said that gay men who were HIV-positive or had full-blown AIDS had become the lepers of the twentieth century. Just as lepers had been forced beyond the walls of their towns in first-century Palestine because of the fear of contagion, so these men were being ostracized by society.
            Of course, not only gay men had AIDS, other people as well—children, women, men—who were not gay were also suffering the ravages of the disease. But in 1988, it was known as the “gay disease” because nearly everyone thought that it had originated in the gay community and that the sexual practices of that community spread it among other gay men. (If I’m remembering correctly what I read back in the eighties and nineties, the former statement is false; the latter is true. Any of you who know differently, please let me know and I’d post a more accurate statement.)

            The media used the words epidemic, pandemic, and plague when describing the spread of AIDS across the world. According to Newsweek, those who lived with it were the new outcasts. Who would want to touch them or kiss them or drink even a cup of water with them? They were unclean, as was said of the lepers in first-century Palestine when Yeshua walked its roads. 
           And what had he done when he encountered the leper, the outcast, the unclean—the dregs of a society that judged others and found them wanting?
            He reached out to heal spirit and body. He comforted. He consoled.
            I knew what Yeshua had done. 
            What could I do? What can one person ever do?
            One person can help one. And then another. And another.
            We start with one.
            Out of my own experience of feeling as if I didn’t belong, I could reach out to these men—one by one.
            And so I called the Roman Catholic diocese office in St. Paul. I knew that if anyone was doing anything for those with AIDS it would be the nuns and this was a way, possibly, to find those nuns. There was much I did not appreciate about Roman Catholicism, but who can deny the great work that nuns have done in our country and throughout the world?

A nun treating people injured in the Haiti earthquake.

They have fed the hungry, given sustenance to the impoverished, visited the imprisoned, sheltered the homeless, clothed the naked, buried the dead.

A nun on a motorbike in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

They have taught worldwide; comforted the sick, the sorrowful, the afflicted; served others in every imaginable situation. Some, like Ita Ford, a Maryknoll nun in El Salvador, have been murdered for their efforts to help others.

Ita Ford, Maryknoll nun, murdered in El Salvador in 1980.

            I ask again, “Who can doubt that the vast majority of Catholic nuns have reached out always to the oppressed and the outcasts of our society?” And although I was no longer a nun, I’d learned well from my mother and from the convent and from Yeshua that there is no greater calling then to reach out to others and to unite in our need.
            It is then we discover not only who the other is, but also who we are. And it is only then that we discover our Oneness.
            I cannot remember to whom I spoke at the office of social services. Somehow I got directed to a nun whose name was Joanne. She was in charge of helping those with AIDS who came weekly to St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center for treatment.

St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center in St. Paul, Minnesota,
was renamed Regions Hospital in 1997.

            Joanne interviewed me at length to assess my reasons for volunteering, my attitude toward gays, and my understanding of the extremely remote—nigh on impossible—likelihood of my being infected by AIDS. 
            I must have passed muster for she accepted me as a volunteer for the Tuesday AIDS clinic. Two other women and I would spend our day visiting with any patient who wanted to talk about this or that or these or those or life in general.           
            On Saturday I’ll share those days with you. For three years I volunteered and worked with Darlene and Mary, two of the most kind-hearted and interesting women I ever had the privilege to know. During that time I also became friends with several gay men, but I most remember Robert, Andrew, and Lon. I look forward to introducing them to you.
                                                                        (Continued on Saturday . . . )

Housekeeping: Last Saturday, Inger posted a review of Twelve Habits of Highly Successful Cats and Their Humans on her blog. Her words brought tears to my eyes. If you’d like to read it, please click here.

Pictures from Wikipedia.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


(Continued from Tuesday . . . )
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.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"And the Band Played On"

October 2, 1985, is a memorable date. It changed history because it gave a face to AIDS. Up to that time Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome was featureless. For most people, it was the illness of gay men. Men who lived elsewhere.
            Some doctors called AIDS “gay cancer” because of the presence of Kaposi’s sarcoma in many of the men who’d died from it.

The lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma.

But those men didn’t live in our town, our state. They lived in San Francisco. There were a lot of them there for sure. They lived anywhere but here.
            By October 2, 1985, newspapers and magazines had been carrying articles about the disease for several years. For some readers, AIDS was a disease of those disreputable and unredeemable men called “gays” or “queers” or “homos” or “homosexuals.”
            It was the curse a just God had called down on them for their actions in bathhouses and dilapidated rooming houses.
            These AIDS carriers were better off dead.
            The sooner the better.
            Let’s rid the world of them and their repellent disease.
            Those were the thoughts countless people in the United States had before October 2, 1985. They knew about gay men and lesbian women, but they didn’t know anyone who was actually “queer.” None of their friends had turned away from heterosexuality and chosen to be gay.
            For that was the thought then. One “chose” to be homosexual. One turned his or her back on heterosexuality and decided, because of contrariness, to be different. Immoral. Sleazy. Unsavory. Disgusting. One wanted to be "a homo." To be gay. 
            Okay. Let them choose, but let them know that they will never be welcomed in the heterosexual society that runs this world.
            And what happened to disturb those thoughts back on October 2, 1985?
            Rock Hudson—the tall, dark, and handsome movie star—died.

Rock Hudson in the movie Giant.

            Exposés followed: He was gay. He’d always been gay. Some of the most renowned movie stars—Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Saint James, and Carol Burnett among them—had known and kept the horrible secret.
            He was an active gay man and he died of AIDS.
            The news blared forth in every household in the United States where someone was reading the newspaper or watching the evening news on television or listening to the radio: Rock Hudson has died from an AIDS-related illness at age fifty-nine.
            This celebrity-conscious society in which we live collectively gasped. No longer was AIDS faceless. It now bore the face of Rock Hudson who had been called “The Star of the Year” and “Favorite Leading Man.” From 1957 to 1964, he’d been named one of the “Top 10 Stars of the Year” eight times.
            Everyone remembered him as tall—six feet five—with dark hair, incisive eyes, and a sculptured face. Now photographs in newspapers and magazines revealed him as gaunt. Frail.
            And so AIDS came out of the closet. For years, governments throughout the world had largely ignored what many had called a “pandemic.” The twentieth century had already faced one pandemic. Between the years 1918 and 1920, the Spanish influenza had swept through our world leaving dead more than 50,000,000 people. Some historians in fact estimated that number to be 130,000,000.
            In the mid-eighties, many doctors and scientists in Europe and the United States predicted that AIDS could do the same.
            By late 1985, more than 12,000 people had died in the United States alone. So here, the word most often used was epidemic. We had an epidemic on our hands and gay men were spreading it.
            Homophobes insisted that this was only gay men killing gay men. Go ahead, let them. Let them kill off one another.
            But wait a minute. What about Ryan White of Kokomo, Indiana? He wasn’t gay and yet he was HIV-infected. How’d that happen?

Ryan White at thirteen.

            The national headline about the thirteen-year-old boy with hemophilia had captured the nation’s attention ten months before—in December 1984. A public school in his hometown had expelled him because parents feared he’d infect their children. He already had the virus that would lead to death from AIDS. Parents reasoned that he would pass the infection on to their children by drinking from the same fountain or paper cup.
            In those early years of the eighties, the word AIDS and HIV-positive became commonplace. Misinformation was also common. People believed they could be infected through kissing or by simply touching a person who was already infected. Ryan White’s case made many wonder about the reliability of blood transfusions. So, were gay men and the blood they donated now killing children? Was anyone safe?
            Fear stalked the land.
            It was in that atmosphere that the book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts, a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle, was published in 1987.

            The Washington Post hailed it as “a monumental history.”
            The San Francisco Sentinel called it “fascinating, frightening, and essential reading.”
            The New York Times proclaimed that it was “a heroic work of journalism.”
            In spring of 1988, I sat on the screened-in porch of my 1870 lumberjack home in Stillwater, Minnesota, and read that book. I entered a world unlike any I’d ever known and it prepared me for the article I read later that summer in Time magazine. That article, and its use of one word, catapulted me into volunteering to work with young men who were HIV-positive or had full-blown AIDS.
            More about that on Saturday.

All photographs from Wikipedia.