Living in Remarkable Times

4.25.2014

By Jesse Archer

The heroes lost to AIDS can be seen, if you squint.

Illustration by Edward McGowan

She had only one screen credit, but the film is among the greatest. Alicia Rhett, who died earlier this year at the age of 98, played India Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. Aside from two bit players, her death leaves the 97-year-old Olivia de Havilland, who starred as kind, gentle Melanie Wilkes, the sole survivor of that enduring epic.

It’s difficult for me to contemplate what it must be like to have outlasted all your contemporaries. Good genes, good choices, and good luck, probably mixed with a measure of guilt. I know a 60-something drag queen who always wears five golden rings, one for each lover lost during the dark days of AIDS. Last Christmas, an older friend in New York posted online the names of over 40 men he wished he could be with again; friends gone too early but not forgotten. And in the back of a gay weekly recently, a man named David placed an ad to tell a man named Ricky that, 25 years after his untimely death, he was still alive in his heart.

This is how we see the generation lost to AIDS. You have to squint. That is how I have always seen them, for I only got glimpses, even back when they were busy dying those ghastly deaths. In the 1980s, gay men and AIDS made the news in snippets. Theirs were cautionary tales, sound and fury signifying the grim result of a life lived in sin.

As an adult I began to think more about them, imagining what it must have been like to face an unimaginably wretched young death with zero chance of survival, a government indifferent, your own family turning away in shame. I still feel a palpable loss at not having being allowed to know these men. Aside from the incalculable contributions to arts, culture, and society snatched by the plague, I know that I missed out on some incredible big brothers and mentors. It’s hard not to take this personally; instead of mentoring, their misfortune imparted to kids like me only the most scathing of schoolyard accusations.

I still wonder who they were, but when I ask the drag queen to tell me about her five lost lovers, she distracts me with a joke. This is common of survivors, for they lived through a drama that their costars didn’t and now prefer to laugh with the living. Little wonder that the youngest in our community have so little reverence, so little regard for safer sex in a post-crisis world; nobody wants to talk about a war. And yet how can we expect a veteran to expound upon the gory details of fallen comrades, we who know nothing of trenches?

You may look for them in books. Close to the Knives, And the Band Played On, and Holding the Man are all moving works whose authors—David Wojnarowicz, Randy Shilts, and Timothy Conigrave, respectively—were each claimed by AIDS. Their spirits exist in music and art, in brilliant theater from Angels in America to The Normal Heart, and in documentaries from that time, not so long ago, when prejudice was tantamount to murder. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt showed the world not just how many lives were lost, but that each one was a human being loved by another human being. Watch gay men turn into overnight activists fighting for their lives in How to Survive a Plague; listen to the accounts of everyday heroes and learn how lesbians stepped in to nurse their dying gay brothers when a besieged community proved its mettle in We Were Here.

It all makes me wish I had been there. I understand that I’d be dead if I’d been born earlier, but part of me envies the guts I was never asked to show. They were at the coalface, forcing people to pay attention, finding a dignity — a voice — and facing mortality with what was likely a fatally hilarious gallows humor. It’s easy to romanticize, to turn someone else’s nightmare into something cinematic. Atlanta engulfed in flames as the gallant South falls to its knees looks awesome onscreen — not so much if you called it home.

We may not see much of that generation lost to AIDS, but their legacy leads us. We will follow through to full equality in their memory, although the battlefield has shifted from fiery, fearless activism to this comparatively genteel era of reconstruction. Today’s fight to win hearts, minds, and marriage feels more like agonizing contract negotiation — and yet it absolutely has to be considered a privilege.

Still, I’m curious to know if the peerless de Havilland, when recalling her glory days in the golden age of Hollywood, believes we’ve lost something in the way of star quality; if enduring and epic are words that only apply to the pictures of her era. If, maybe, we don’t live in remarkable times.

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