During the AIDS epidemic, I started my day reviewing the obituaries. About once a week I would find the name of a friend. I kept a list of people I knew. When I had filled out both sides with three columns of names on each side, about 200 of names in total, I threw the paper out in disgust. I was in my 30s at the time.
I said to myself that those of us who survived, not knowing if I would be in that number, would be either very wise or very bitter, from all the death we had seen. I’m happy to report that I have seen more wisdom.
One incident in particular stands out. A friend who’d been a leader of gay Birmingham spent the last year of his life with his family in his hometown of Vienna, in South Georgia. There, he took up his Southern Baptist roots, and renounced his gay life, whatever that means.
At his funeral, there wasn’t a flower arrangement to be had in the entire county; they had all been bought up by his Birmingham and Atlanta friends. Gathering outside it was easy to spot who was from Vienna and who was not. The locals showed up in pickup trucks and Cadillacs. They wore their Sunday-best clothes. The out-of-towners drove late model black imports and wore fancy suits.
The church was square and didn’t have enough pews for everyone to have a seat. The gay men let the townspeople in first, to take the seats. The gay men stood around the inside perimeter of the church.
I don’t know if it was deliberate, or not, but the service did not start until at least 45 minutes after we had all entered the church. During that time, it felt like each group was looking at the other group, blaming the other for my friend’s death. The locals blamed us, and our wild gay lifestyle. The gay men blamed the locals and their intolerant religion. The air was full of tension.
All we had to do was to stare at the other group; us looking at them, and they looking at us. By the time the service started we had each come to see the others as people, not as opposites. We recognized each other’s humanity, everyone perfectly imperfect.
During those years I saw numerous young men become instant elders, suddenly facing death. Too often they did so without the support of their families who disowned them when they were found to be gay. The primary lesson I learned from my friends’ deaths was that it is best to live life fully now, because no one knows when their last breath is going to be. And that we all will die.
Today I wish I had that piece of paper, because I know I have forgotten some of the names on my list.