The recognition and proliferation of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, with little hope for anything but the spread of a deadly epidemic and enduring public shame, added a frightening component to coming to terms with one’s alternative sexuality during that time.
There was little but shame already associated with being gay, despite the courageous efforts of the Stonewall-inspired activists, the American Psychological Association who had declared same-sex sexual orientation not a pathology, and the Act UP warriors. Most of society–and probably the greater number of gays and lesbians–still saw same-sex orientation as a shameful deviation. Levels of self-loathing differed from individual to individual, but were typical. Sissy, pansy, fag, pervert; these were the epithets, as well as the spoken or unspoken assessments of family members, friends, and gays ourselves.
To add the prospect of certain death to the act of coming out, or following our natural predispositions, certainly gave one pause. It also provided ammunition to the enormous crowd of haters, as if they needed any.
In my case I was married as well; so there was the additional terror of spreading illness were I to do anything unsafe or unlucky.
So, despite come-ons from guys, and occasional naughty drunken escapades, I was determined to be what I thought I learned that I was from the insightful Kinsey essay. I’d accept my being a 4 or a 5, but remain married to my wife—a long-time dear friend and companion.
Knowing a few good friends and numerous acquaintances who contracted HIV made the situation even more frightening, and my determination stronger. I’d wait it out, and continue on my chosen path, imagining that somehow someday I’d come into my own as gay but still married.
In the meantime I envied gay men with a strength that I did not know was possible. I envied their glamor, their sex lives, their good humor, their diva icons, and above all their freedom. The stigma of their still being social pariahs paled in comparison to the beauty and courage of their lived truth.
Gradually it became obvious to me what I had to do. I came to embrace my truth. Regardless of devoted wife, regardless of our two adorable sons, and regardless of AIDS, I had to set things right. There were talks, arguments, tears, honesty, disappointment, good wishes, and wistfulness for us all. But opening before us there was also hope, possibility, a rich life of honesty, tolerance and empathy.
Twenty years later, I can report that things are good. There have been bumps—mostly associated with the challenge of running two households on an academic income—but these are manageable. Honesty and respect are the keys. And it is good that the boys (both straight) have been raised with healthy doses of both of these.
HIV/AIDS continues to plague the gay community and the world in 2015. Infection rates have not been limited to gay men, obviously. The stigma has been reduced, and treatments have improved, but the sad truth remains that this is a plague that has not been addressed with adequate empathy or resources.
I have buried several friends. I come from a generation that buried many friends. My contacts were somewhat limited from being mostly closeted, but I retain powerful memories of numerous lives lost, and of helping one of my best friends by cleaning his apartment and feeding him when he was too weak to do so, then talking him into allowing me to take him to the hospital for his final admission.
My hope is that the drive for humane and humanistic treatment of all people will make the world better in the future. The odds are not great, but losing hope is a worse fate.
William J. McCarthy, PhD
Visiting lecturer, Swansea University (2015)
Alys Einion December 1st, 2015
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