Story & Recording by Elsa Sjunneson
I don’t remember being told my father was dying. I must have been too young when I internalized this information. I always knew he was sick and since my dad was an AIDS educator, it wasn’t like I didn’t know what the disease did.
It was the ‘90s. We were only beginning to know what AIDS was and, at 8 years old, I only understood what it had done to my father. My memories of these days are so scattered. I try to pick up the pieces. I’m still missing some of the pieces. I have letters written to him and written from him to others. I have his artwork. I have his writing. I have the play he wrote about his disease. People tell me I look like him. I have been told that I dance like him. But I cannot draw like my father and our writing styles are vastly different.
As a child, I remember that I clung to the idea of his physical remains – his ashes, because they were the only reminder I had that he had been there at all. I don’t have a gravesite but I do have physical touchstones. I didn’t know that my father could read German or that his artwork wasn’t always abstract and that the things I love in art are influenced by the work he did when I was around him.
I remember going with him to teach AIDS education classes to adults. I have letters thanking him for his teaching and these are the things I choose to carry with me.
It happened to me, it has happened to others: their parents die from AIDS but instead of everyone understanding it like they would cancer or another terminal illness, the sideways glances of misunderstanding cloud their faces. The politics of sex education and gay rights muddle the story of my past and I am forced to politicize the very nature of my identity.
The teddy bear gay pin sits in my jewelry box. The ACT UP pin sits next to it. The photos of drag queens and letters from family sit in my office, and I need to find a way to synthesize the historical image of my father with the reality.
He was Tanya Ransom, a drag queen. He was Michael Norman, an artist, educator and playwright. And he was a patient. And he was my father.