what we carry.
by Michael King
On the day after we started dating, I took my second boyfriend to downtown Indianapolis. We parked my car at the campus apartments close to the river, walking our way into the city and searching for our first adventure together. For dinner, we chose a pizza place –– not a breadsticks-on-wax-paper pizza place, but a dried-cherries-as-toppings pizza place –– and we faced each other. “So,” he said to me, “what should we talk about?”
A funny idea struck me: We could read through the questions.
Earlier in the week, I’d read an article about a study carried out to determine what made people fall in love. In the study, strangers were paired and asked to respond to a series of questions. The questions, running the gamut from ‘do you sing by yourself’ to ‘what’s something you dream of doing’, were listed at the bottom of the article. I presented the idea to him. He agreed.
By the time the pizza arrived, we’d finished a goat cheese appetizer and about twenty-one questions. As he picked a slice of pizza up to put on my plate, I asked the question: ‘Do you have a suspicion about how you’ll die?’
He asked me to answer first. Grinning, I told him about my prophecy, at fifteen, that my life would end in a car crash. I shared with him how I’d resigned myself, all those years ago, to losing my life before I was twenty-one. “I never expected I’d make it this far.”
“Oh,” he said to me, “I thought we’d say the same.” He picked up slice of his own, dropping bits of pork on the tablecloth before setting it down. I asked how he expected to die. He shrugged. “AIDS.”
Before I summoned the courage to come out, I spent years of my life considering. I considered my family, the heartbreak they might feel, the distance it might put between us, the loss I’d feel in all of that. I considered my faith, and all the messages I’d heard over the years letting me know I couldn’t hold both in my heart simultaneously. I considered my future, the family I’d envisioned, and I’d considered the past, all the years of trying and trying and trying to make myself fit into a heterosexual mold. I never once, in all of those years, considered dying of AIDS.
In grad school, after I’d come out to a mentor (she identifies as lesbian), she offered to give me her copies of Advocate magazine. Unfamiliar with it, I accepted enthusiastically. “It can be a bit of a bummer,” she warned me, “everything in there’s about HIV.” I never read Advocate after she said that. I guess I didn’t want to be bummed out.
It’s common, when I’m talking with gay friends about their coming out stories, to hear that their parents immediately expressed a hysterical concern about AIDS. We laugh about it, shaking our heads. Sometimes I think that’s all we can do.
AIDS first came into my awareness when I was nine or ten. My mom had invited us to watch a movie on TV, a Pay-Per-View film that told the story about an unlikely friendship between a loner and a neighbor boy who was sick with AIDS. In the film, the boy with AIDS was treated like a person in quarantine, acknowledged only by his mother and, eventually, the loner protagonist. I don’t remember all the details of the film, but I suspect the boy died at the end. My mom was crying while she watched.
I do remember that, at some point in the film, a group of bullies spot the aforementioned boys hanging out. They shout after them, calling them faggots. My brother and I looked at each other; we’d never heard the word before. “It’s not something we ever call somebody,” my mom told us, “it’s a hateful word.”
But the word made its way into our house after that. My brother used it sparingly at first, reserved only for the times I made him really angry. As he moved into adolescence, he used it to describe anybody he didn’t like. It’s strange to say it now, but I know I picked it up, too. I used it on my little brother whenever he made me angry.
When I got older, one of my best friends in high school used the adjective ‘faggoty.’ Since then, my other best friend and I have both come out as gay. Sometimes I wonder if he worries that we’ve held onto the memory.
Interesting note about the film my mom showed us: I think it was about a boy who got AIDS from a blood transfusion. I remember that being a pivotal revelation in the film, as though the audience needed to know he didn’t deserve the AIDS that was choking the life from his body.
I watched The Normal Heart on a whim, renting it from a Family Video during grad school and popping it into the DVD player with the gravitas of microwave popcorn. The film opens with a representation of Fire Island in the early 80’s, with handsome young men wearing next to nothing together on resorts by the water. Early in the film, the music changes, and Jonathon Groff’s character falls to the sand on the beach. Minutes later, in the film, we learn he has died, shown through quick shots of his boyfriend yelling hysterically and his body convulsing on a hospital bed.
The film explores the manner in which gay men fought to survive the AIDS epidemic. The illness, called ‘gay cancer’ in early news articles, seemed to be spread by sexual contact between men. The characters fight to understand what this means for who they are; all those years of waging the internal war of accepting who they were, only to learn that it just might kill them. The film also examines the United States’ disinterest in addressing the issue. If all the victims were gay men, what was truly being lost?
It’s a heartbreaking story, populated by shots of men carrying their dying boyfriends into hospitals, shouting for help. Begging for someone to care. Watching it, my heart broke into pieces. As the credits rolled, I sat in my feelings for some time, understanding the impact of AIDS in a new way.
Thank God, I thought, for the ones who came before me. For the ones who lived, loved, and fought for the right to exist. Who shouted upon deaf ears that we, too, matter.
For the first time, I understood that my identity as a gay man came at a cost not just to myself, but to generations of gay men before me.
In the time since humans first began contracting AIDS, our understanding of the disease has grown exponentially. Today, most of us know that acquiring HIV is no longer a death sentence. On gay dating apps, a person is able to identify themselves as ‘Poz,’ a shorthand for ‘positive.’ Television shows featuring gay characters highlight relationships between poz men and men without HIV.
The fear still looms, however, among some of us. I learned that, watching my boyfriend sheepishly smile as he lifted his pizza to his mouth. I’ve felt it since – the day I took a friend to a testing clinic, the day the same boyfriend and I got tested ‘for fun’ at a drag show, the day I learned a former student had contracted HIV.
I cannot donate blood. My blood type is O+, and I still get e-mails from the time I donated during college, letting me know my blood is in high demand. No, I think to myself, it isn’t. My blood makes people afraid.
When I learned that a price hike had been ordered for pharmaceutical drugs related to HIV maintenance, I felt a bolt of fear in my chest. Somebody in the world, a man with money and power, had knowingly ordered a death sentence for HIV-positive people without the means to endure the price hike. A price had been placed on human lives, many of which belonged to gay men.
In a time of political unrest, it remains to be seen what changes are coming for people in the queer community. If the Vice President of our country has a political history of openly endorsing gay conversion therapy, of urging employers not to hire gay men into the workplace (our susceptibility to AIDS is expensive), can we expect him to take a stand for queer people affected by HIV?
When I consider this, all of it –– the rejection of gay men’s blood at donation centers, the price hike of HIV medication, the selection of a Vice President with a well-documented history of working to eradicate queer people, I think of the queer people who will come later. What will my legacy be, through their eyes? When I consider this, my resolve is clear:
I will stand up, I will bare my heart, and I will shout my existence. I and we and they will not be erased, forgotten, drowned out. The lives we build, the bodies we inhabit, the existences we’ve scraped for –– they matter. And we will have to shout this truth until they, and we, believe it wholeheartedly.