On May 18, 1981, the New York Native published the first article about a “gay cancer” rumoured to be afflicting gay men. Dr. Lawrence Mass, who had a regular health column in the Native, wrote about the curious appearance of Kaposi’s sarcoma—a rare skin cancer that was typically found only in elderly people—and bouts of pneumonia among gay men in New York. I was born ten days earlier. I have lived my entire life in the era of HIV/AIDS. Of course, HIV/AIDS is not a “gay disease,” as it was often called in the ‘80s and ‘90s; neither is it any longer as terrifyingly fatal, untreatable, or mystifying.
Growing up as a young gay man in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, shedding the after-effects of repression by the religious community I left behind, my maturation inevitably was shaped by the traumas the gay community suffered the previous two decades. The threat of infection and the spectre of severe illness and death was ever-present. The sense of loss remained tender and vivid in the social and private lives of the older men with whom I spent time. One of my professors who became a close friend after my graduation took me to The Eagle in Calgary one weekend, changing into the leather chaps he always kept in the trunk of his Lexus. He introduced me to the other leather daddies gathered there. I will never forget the grief they shared with me that night about the losses they suffered daily and weekly in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Survivors’ guilt ran thick in their veins. I remember their insatiable telling to one as young as I—their thrill at my attentive listening. Such was my initiation into gay community.
Twenty years on, I carry a strong sense of responsibility toward this knowledge and history—even to the men themselves, whose names and faces I no longer can recall. In the moment, I listened to their stories out of respect for their eldership and lived experience; I sensed their need to keep that history alive and did my part as the ‘Beloved’ learning from the sages. It was their lives that I recalled while I was working on an essay for our Polity of Literature series these last few weeks. Those men, some of them still alive and vividly part of my life, gave me a way to imagine the men of their generation who would have been the readers of a remarkable underground comics series called Gay Comix. In a way, they taught me how to read my own history.
What I didn’t recognize until many years later—but was certainly obvious to them—was the precarious psychological foundation of my own gay identity. I didn’t know where I belonged in the long history of gay consciousness. I needed a history, an ancestry within which to situate my life. I like to think this is what Harry Hay, the founder of the Radical Faeries movement in the ‘60s, meant when he wrote about “the accumulation of all experiential consciousness from the division of the first cells in the primeval slime, down through all biological-political-social evolution to your and to my latest insights through Gay Consciousness just a moment ago.” Those men in The Eagle that night showed me possibilities for queer kinship that formed during the most trying times at the height of the AIDS crisis.
That kinship is the lifeblood of gay consciousness and it flows through the literary veins of queer histories, including in Gay Comix. It is gay ancestry that I longed for. The literature left behind is my birthright. The artist and filmmaker, Derek Jarman, wrote about this in 1992 as advanced AIDS ravaged his body. Between bouts of delirium, he persevered in adding his story to the annals of gay history: “When I was young the absence of the past was a terror. That’s why I wrote autobiography…. I began to read between the lines of history. The hunt was one for forebears who validated my existence.” He recognized that he was living through a time of deep sadness, loss, outrage, and injustice, but also one of cultural transformation. The literature left behind contains queer-inflected polities within it. It is my birthright as a reader, regardless of queerness, to find citizenship in those polities. But my queerness opens a way for me, as a reader, to sit with Jarman and so find validation of my existence within the lines of history as he did with his forebears. I marvel at this.