Tales of Survival

Disease, Death and Discrimination have forged a community that has turned sadness into strength

by Richard J. Rosendall
Published on June 9, 2011, 1:32pm | Comments

June 5 marked the 30th anniversary of the first report of what became known as AIDS, when the Centers for Disease Control described cases of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in five Los Angeles gay men. Coincidentally, in the same month in 1981, a few dozen people started the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C. (GMCW). On that first night at the old Gay Community Center, we were full of hope and enthusiasm, unaware of the devastation the new disease would bring. That seems a Thirty Years War ago.

Here we are, survivors. On Sunday morning actress Sharon Stone, global chair of amfAR, told CNN's Sanjay Gupta that gay people are the ones raising money to fight AIDS, which means that women and children with HIV will live thanks to those who were once ostracized. This brought to mind singer and AIDS activist Michael Callen, who wryly called himself a "diseased pariah" after a Flirtations concert in 1993, even as he was surrounded by well-wishers. The eulogy I wrote for him is 17 years old.

At GMCW's 30th anniversary concerts on June 4 and 5, survival and renewal were themes. Included was a new one-act musical, Alexander's House, with music and lyrics by composer Michael Shaieb. It concerns a gay man whose death leads to his partner and friends meeting his estranged son, and carries echoes of beloved GMCW founding member Michael Baker, who died in March 2010.

Guest artist Jennifer Holliday, chatting between songs, said she was glad to reach 50 after the mess she made of her 20s and 30s. At a Sunday brunch for veterans of GMCW's first decade, some brought old chorus photos that were filled with vanished friends.

In the course of our lives, each of us builds his own collection of familiar ghosts — those close to us whom we have lost. They speak to us in our memory. But life is for the living. The new generation of men who have replenished GMCW's ranks never knew most of the men on the "In Memoriam" list in the chorus program. Like the old files I am disposing at my federal job as I prepare to retire after 32 years, most of what we do is lost and forgotten with time.

Not forgotten are the stories we pass between generations, and the values they embody. What keeps the chorus selling tickets is not just the quality of its singers but how it touches people. GMCW's music can provide a welcome escape, but it can also help us cope with loss and celebrate our endurance.

Other examples of survival were on view Saturday at the Capital TransPride festival. Jeri Hughes, a transgender activist who helped me staff the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance's information table, observed with amazement that, having reached her 60th birthday, she will not die young, despite all she has faced including a savage beating years ago by police.

Julian Harris, a resilient young transman, is active with the DC Area Transmasculine Society, a support group that offers mentoring for people new to a wide range of transgender identities.

Kadeem Swenson, who became homeless at 16 when he was thrown out by his parents after they learned he was gay, is now 19 and has "graduated" from D.C.'s Wanda Alston House for LGBT and questioning youth. He is studying at the University of the District of Columbia, where he is full of plans.

These testimonials of strength are lost on groups that sow fears of gay and transgender people to deny us equality. Our stories nonetheless bear the message that if we can survive all this, we can overcome anything. Sometimes we just need a reminder, a helping hand, and maybe a ghostly whisper.


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