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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Elegy

Mike, Glenn, Alan, Peter, Alan, Andrew, Chris, David: I used to have a list somewhere of all the names of the men I know who’d died. Then it got too long. And now I can’t remember everyone I knew who died of AIDS. I hope their families still do, but it is over 20 years now since many of them sickened and died. Even to their brothers and sisters they will be turning into misty memories, the sadness and grief now all but worn away over time, as they look at old photos and remember the good times. I suppose this is what it is like after a war. Twenty years on who wanted to hear talk of the trenches of WW1 and their horrors, or who in the 1960s really cared about the agony and brilliance of the Battle of Britain pilots? Who cares today about the veterans of the first Gulf War? But in all of these, families were destroyed. Young loved men in the prime of their lives disappeared into some distant land or city, and returned, if at all, either plague-wracked and waiting to die or already dead, to the fear and grief of their families.

At least in a war, the dead are honoured. But for us, our dead were not so welcomed, not initially. The fear of contagion surrounding even a corpse was strong. To have to admit to friends that the funeral was for a son who’d got sick and died, here or in Sydney or London was shameful. Shame, guilt, ostracism, doubt and fear: HIV is marked with all of these in ways that other diseases are not. And if you nursed people through those days, watched them sicken and waste away, become demented, forget who you were even though you’d been spending hours every day with them, this was heartbreaking. It seemed a whole generation of beautiful young men were cursed, and we all wondered when our turn would come, because why should we escape?

Today, it is all so different, in a medical sense anyhow. For most of us, if you take your pills and do what your Dr says, you will be ok. Medically ok that is. But those deep currents of shame and anguish linger and are strong. Grown men still weep in fear and at their folly in getting infected. Even though they know in a rational sense that they will most likely not follow the same trajectory as we did back in the early days, still that sense of fear, of shame and of guilt is there, still strong, perhaps even stronger. After all, that little voice inside your head says “They knew the risks!” And it’s true, they did know what they were doing, and even so, in spite of all the safe-sex campaigns they’d been in, in spite of all the condoms they’d thrown off floats in parades, in spite of having manned AIDS hotlines, even they got it eventually, and they cannot help but ask themselves “Why? How?”

They will not die in the same way as all those men did 20 years ago. Blind, demented and lying in their own shit. They will be able to lead fairly normal lives. Travel. Have relationships. Have sex. Maybe even have kids. All this is possible now for those of us with HIV. But still, the shock is there, the trauma, the agony.

And for those of us old enough to remember the really bad days, for me anyhow, there is that sense of “Why did we have to go through all that horror?” along with a feeling that, in some ways, that is when in fact we were most alive, most useful, most worthy as human beings. We were in there, up to our elbows, dealing with sickness and death and grief on an almost daily basis. It was horrible, debilitating and sorrowful, and yet it felt for many of us as though we were doing the most valuable and important things that could be done.

And who remembers that now? Did it all happen? Did it matter? This generation today – they have no idea. And why should they, in fact, I want to protect them from it, but still I resent their blithe ways and their lack of understanding, their lack of history.

But then, go through small-town NZ and look. You will see them there, small memorials from WW1 or WW2; in my school chapel we even had a memorial for the Boer War dead. Think of the heartbreak every one of those deaths caused, the devastation and distress on receiving that letter or telegram, knowing that son was never coming home. And now, who remembers the person behind those names? Who recalls their laugh, what made them special. All gone, generations ago. And so will all this be gone too. Who will remember them, with their good points and flaws? Who will recall how they were loved?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

God Save the Queens !

"It's easier to hide an elephant in your armpit than a queen in a crowd" : apparently a popular saying in Constantinople in the 10th Century or so.


OK, so I'm fudgeing the date a bit, but the friend who told me this was a Byzantine historian from Athens, and a big old sodomite to boot, so I believe him. I've always loved the saying. It's not always the most popular observation, but the queen does seem to be a pretty unviersal human type, and one we can recognise whether you're in the streets of Moscow, Cairo, Beijing or Dunedin. I swear that in Jerusalem a few years ago I saw two screaming mincing queens dressed up as Orthodox Jewish women, wigs, head-scarves and all.They seemed to be having a great time, though causing some level of puzzlement to those around them.



Queens are powerful, and that's how I use the word queen, not in a disparaging way, but they are strong. Think of Quentin Crisp. Think of Philippe, Duc d'Orleans in 17th Century France, and according to Saint-Simon "the silliest woman at Court" yet a soldier who won huge admiraiton for his courage on the battlefield, even if apparently he was prone to run shrieking when there was a thunderstorm.



Edmund White in his biographical novel "The Farewell Symphony" notes the change that went on in the gay world in the 60s as the Gym Body moved in and the old queen style moved out - "Gay boys who just ten years earlier had hissed together over cocktails, skinny in black pegged pants and cologne soaked pale blue angora sweaters, and had disputed Callas vs. Tebaldi now lumbered like innocent kindergartners in snowsuits of rosy inflated flesh..." But really, when you think of it, we don't call them "Muscle Marys" for nothing now, do we?



And as we've just passed the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in NY, it's worth remembering it was led to a large extent by the queens who lived in the area and used the bar.


So we are we now so quick to disown our royal pedigree? Why are queens so out now, and why do people claim (and puh - leez! it so often is just a claim) to be "straight -acting" or "discreet". What's wrong with being In-Your-face? Why is there so often the unease in the gay world around the obviously and effeminately gay male? They did, to a large extent, pave the way for us, yet now we seem ashamed of them as we try and sink into decent, dull, suburban, gym-toned obscurity.


You don't have to be a rabid screecher, you don't have to do drag, or wear makeup to be a queen. You can have a great body from the gym, a moustache, a deep voice and a hairy chest and be one too. Some of the campest queens I've known were some of the most aggressive tops I've come across too. The stereotypes just don't apply. I suppose it's the attitude. The confidence, the "Don't-Fuck-With-Me" to your enemies and the warm, loyal friendship (if sometimes expressed behind a veil of rapier like sarcasm) to those you love.


Queens are subversive and threatening. They pose a challenge and don't fit neatly into the current nice boringly beige model of gayness we live with. Queens, just by their existence, ask us "Do you really believe this shit they are peddling? Is this what we fought for? Is this what being a fag is really about? " Their bullshit detectors are flawless, and their hearts are deep.


And if they have airs and graces at times, well darling, don't forget, life in a palace changes one.