Readers of the Handyman books will never agree on one very basic part of the story: The inclusion of HIV reality.
I’ve heard from both sides of the argument. I’ve had readers tell me that including HIV facts and stories brings back painful memories of their own experiences with the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s. I’ve also heard from readers who heap praise on me for not ignoring it. I find myself squarely in the middle, as I remember those years with both bitterness and sadness. I’m still bitter over the needless suffering and ostracization of gay men. Sadness? I lost a lot of friends, and frankly, that still fucking hurts. A lot.
Ed’s story began in 1980, and as I continue to write about his life with Rick I feel it would be disingenuous to avoid the topic of HIV and AIDS. It was a big part of every gay man’s life in that era, whether they spoke of it or not. I enjoy writing about the past from a present day perspective, and unfortunately that means including the bad with the good. People have gotten a big kick out of my references to “New Coke” in the latest book, THE HANDYMAN’S HISTORY. Well, 1985 was also the year Rock Hudson died, and if you were not around then, believe me, that rocked the world as it put a specific face on AIDS. A very harsh, unforgiving spotlight was turned on gay men. It was uncomfortable and genuinely frightening at times.
I suppose I could avoid all of this — the gloomy stories that come from AIDS, the controversy and the fear — by moving the story back before AIDS, or moving it forward to a time when AIDS became more of a chronic illness as opposed to a death sentence. I can’t do that. The AIDS crisis and the reaction of gay men to the whole thing is as a huge part of our legacy, one just as important as the Stonewall riots. It shaped who we are today. I believe watching the whole thing unfold through the eyes of Ed Stephens is an important reminder: We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go and much we need to accomplish.
And on a very personal note, I could not weave a story of that era without remembering my own experiences. To ignore something that had such a profound and life-changing impact on me and the other survivors would be spitting in the face of the ones who died. I remember Jay and Tom and Bruce and Mikey and all the others from my life who are gone with great affection. In some respects, Ed’s story is my tribute to them, and every gay man who struggled through those dark years to achieve some of what we take for granted today.
Speaking of which, there was a great episode last season on the “Will & Grace” reboot. Will hooked up with a millennial gay man whose coming out and general experience as a gay man had been pretty easy, which annoyed the hell out of Will. It finally came down to a point where either Will or the young man (I can’t recall which) said: “Okay. Either we have a gay history lesson or go to the bedroom for sweaty sex.” There was a pause, and Will began his gay tutorial. I all but leapt from chair and cheered. (Okay. Found the clip after I wrote this. See it below. ;-)) We mustn’t forget, nor must we allow the young ones to remain ignorant. If that makes me a stuffy old fart, so be it. I firmly believe that those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it. And once was enough for me.
Last night I was watching the CBS Evening News. There was a story about a man in the UK who had had HIV eradicated from his body. They explained the very complicated procedure that allowed this miracle of sorts to happen. Jeff Glor wrapped up the story by quoting the CBS medical expert who said that the procedure was radical and too far fetched for any sort of general use. Essentially — NOT a cure, just another step toward one.
I sat quietly through the story, feeling almost no emotion, no reaction. After thirty-seven or so years of worrying about HIV and AIDS I guess I’m just numb. You see, for anyone who believes AIDS is not a “thing” in 2019, I will remind everyone that the Christian Right is still spewing the exact same garbage about AIDS and gay men as they were in 1985. That has not changed. According to them, we are responsible for all the ills of this planet and our society. Well, Pat Robertson, Jerry FOUL-well, Jr., Franklin Graham, Michelle Bachman, and the rest of you smug, money-grubbing holy rollers, I have two words: “You’re welcome.” Without us gay men I believe you’d be hurtin’ financially.
For everyone else, I’ll say this: Don’t get too comfortable. The fight ain’t over.
This was Friend and Lover’s follow-up to “Reach Out of the Darkness” in 1968. I discovered it a couple of years ago. I’ve been playing it over and over ever since, finding the lyrics just as apropos, if not more so, today as in the late sixties.