Stories of Strength
Spared, Blessed and Fully Awake
Story by Alexandra Billings
When it happened it was not a surprise. It was not out of left field and it was not unexpected. When it happened it was happening to everyone. Everyone I knew. Everyone around me. A black curtain had been thrown over the heads of us all and smothered us all in a cloud of decaying flesh and bloodied foot prints.
And the stench of the AIDS virus infiltrated the inside of my being and it is still potent. It is still thriving. Because I still have AIDS.
And I have outlived most everyone I knew, and we were in our 20s and we were in our 30s and we were still young and still having sex and still doing drugs and still running and jumping and skipping and singing and being queer. And yet one by one, we were being ticked off like ducks at a carnival. In the heart. In the brain. In the limbs.
And for some unknown reason . . . some of us were spared. And it is daily. And it is not gone. And it is getting worse. And it is still potent and it is still fresh. And it still lives in me and one day it will kill me. I know that.
But I am here and I am present and I am fully awake. And I love my life and I am married to the greatest human on the planet and I have spirits around me that bathe me in light.
And so I am truly blessed. Not that I have this disease, but that I learn from it. I remember very well when it happened. Because it seems like it happened yesterday.
Story & Recording by Danny Lee Wynter
“Christy Turlington’s legs are the bees knees” he said flicking through my mum’s copy of Vogue. I’d never seen anyone like him. Exquisitely dressed, Peter Grant, my mother’s childhood friend arrived in my life when I was 8. A time I was terrified of being me. I was aware of him throughout my childhood. I didn’t really know him but I knew how he made me feel. Awkward. Embarrassed. Brimful with self loathing. Peter was what kids today describe as a ‘femme queen.’ And every inch of him denoted his right to be so.
I heard little about Peter in the intervening years. Then one day I overheard my mum saying he had AIDS. The news paralysed me. At 11, it was something nobody in my surroundings was sympathetic to. I learnt of Peter’s death while in the midst of experiencing the routine humiliations of a young homosexual in high school. The skirting about the issue of why you don’t have a girlfriend. The shame of the changing rooms during games practice and feigning asthma attacks to be excused. When Peter died I was still denying the biggest part of me which only came to life in the art rooms or choir practice.
Peter’s funeral took place where he died, the London Lighthouse. I was asked to sing at the service. Hesitant at first, I made the connection as to why I’d been so scared of him. I felt I owed him an apology, so I sang Barbra Streisand’s ‘The Way We Were’ accompanied by the piano. There surrounded by his lover, family, friends and the staff who cared for him, I encountered for the first time a tribe unlike any I’d ever come into contact. I was 13. At one point my mum points to a severely handsome man sat holding his boyfriend’s hand. He was as ‘masculine’ as any man I grew up with. ‘That’s Guy!’ my mother’s friend whispered, ‘I wish he was my Guy!’ mum replied, my tiny frightened childish mind blown.
Years later I would come to experience the gay community’s own deep and complex relationship with the performance of masculinity and the chastising of those deemed ‘too femme’ or too much like Peter! I think back to the scared little boy who met him and now know you can’t ever be too much of yourself. Peter taught me that.
Howard Ashman, 1950-1991
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport and Alan Menken
Recording by Alan Menken
Howard Ashman was a masterful writer, lyricist and director, in my opinion the greatest of our generation, who died of AIDS on March 14, 1991, at the age of 40. My name is Alan Menken. In a collaboration that lasted 12 years, Howard and I wrote the stage and movie musical Little Shop of Horrors and won two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards and three Golden Globe Awards for Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.
We forged a collaboration that was intense, creative and supremely effective. Each moment I spent in the creative space with Howard Ashman remains with me every day of my life.
With our first project at Disney, Little Mermaid, some studio executives resisted using the song “Part of Your World,” for fear we would lose some of the younger audience members. But Howard insisted that our audience had to know what our little mermaid Ariel wanted. She needed to have what he called an “I want” song.
I think that as a gay man, Howard grew up knowing what it felt like to be on the outside, wanting to be a part of the world that he saw around him but somehow not able to fully take part.
For two years, while Little Mermaid was being made, Howard knew he had HIV but he hid his illness from everyone on the movie, including me. We found out later that, during the press junket for Little Mermaid at Disney World in Orlando, Howard wore a catheter in his chest so that he could get medicine intravenously at night. When he saw the parade of Little Mermaid characters at the park, he burst into tears.
Later, those of us who worked with Howard realized why he cried: It was the idea that those characters would live on long after he was gone.
The night we both won our Oscars for Little Mermaid, Howard said he and I needed to have a serious talk, and after we got back to New York, Howard revealed to me that he was sick with AIDS. We had just reached the pinnacle of our careers in both theater and the movie business, and we had worked side-by-side for 11 years, yet my dear friend kept it a secret from everyone he worked with that he had an incurable fatal disease. That’s the kind of fear people lived with back then: fear of rejection, of death, of a fatal illness with no cure, and there was so much stigma and discrimination.
But Howard wouldn’t let AIDS keep him down. He was so determined to keep working, to keep creating magical song moments and unforgettable characters. I think AIDS spurred him on to work even harder because he knew he was living on borrowed time.
Howard and I were brought in to fix Beauty and the Beast while it was being developed. But Howard was too sick to commute back and forth to LA, so he finally had to tell Jeffrey Katzenberg that he had AIDS. Katzenberg agreed that the production would travel from LA to meet with Howard and me in upstate New York.
At the same time, we were also working on Aladdin, which Howard had initially developed. Because of AIDS, Howard was suffering neuropathies, began losing feeling in his fingers, losing his voice and much of his eyesight, all the while we were collaborating on joyous, incredible songs. Howard was determined to keep working as long as he could.
Towards the end of his life, Howard and I wrote “Prince Ali” from his hospital bed. He was down to 80 pounds. He couldn’t see and could barely speak.
Howard and I won an Oscar for Best Song for Beauty and the Beast. And the movie was the first animated picture ever nominated for Best Picture. Howard had passed before ever experiencing the movie’s success. The award was accepted by his companion of seven years, Bill Lauch.
A Mother’s Unconditional Love
Story & Recording by Aaron Holloway
I never even told my mother I was gay and she didn’t know. While lying there in what I perceived to be my deathbed, I thought that my mother would abandon me. She never did.
I was a graduating senior at Prairie View A&M University in Texas and on my spring break visiting my mother when I was diagnosed with AIDS and end-stage renal failure. When I arrived home, I was greeted very warmly by my mom. Her retirement party was that night. Over the weekend, my health continued to deteriorate. On March 10, 2008, the anniversary of my father’s passing four years prior, my mom insisted on taking me to the emergency room. She drove us to the hospital, where I was born and where my father passed away. I was beyond terrified.
After check-in and having my vitals taken, the nurses began taking several laboratory tests. Within 24 hours, I was checked into the hospital and had an AV fistula implanted into my heart. I was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure. The nephrologist assigned to me was shrewd and proclaimed that my kidneys were “gone” and I would never urinate again.
The same general physician I saw previously in the presence of my mother informed me about my AIDS diagnosis, and thereby outed me — twice. I will never forget what that physician said to me.
“Wake up! It’s AIDS. Are you surprised?”
Miraculously, during one of my dialysis treatments over that summer, my kidneys regained their proper function. I was able to return to my undergraduate studies.
In May 2009, I graduated cum laude from Prairie View A&M University with Bachelor of Business Administration in Management degree. I also graduated cum laude from Texas A&M University – Commerce with a Master of Science in Technology Management degree.
Norm and Louis and the Chelsea Gym
Story & Recording by Ken Gault
On August 9, 1987, Norman Rathweg died of AIDS.
Somewhere in the 1980s, gay bars — especially in the Village — were going out of business. Perhaps it was the dying clientele, perhaps it was part of the global growth of health-culture, but the bar was being replaced by the gym as the place to meet, to hook up, or both.
Norm and his partner, Louis, were catching this wave of change. They opened the Chelsea Gym at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 17th Street, the middle of the new gayborhood. The entrance was on 17th Street, lockers on the ground floor, showers and steam room downstairs, weights, machines and mirrors upstairs overlooking Eighth Avenue.
We came to the gyms to gain, lose, socialize or lurk. For some, it was a competition to look fabulous and ‘get’ whatever there was to be ‘gotten,’ especially if it meant themselves. The buff-bodies paid little attention to me. Or if they did I was oblivious. Like everyone else, with or without the virus, I battled my own feelings of inadequacy.
There was something else going on with these men and their bodies. Those pounds of muscle said to the world that this bad-ass body does not, cannot, will not have AIDS. That might happen to someone else, but not to me, not to this body.
And there was something deeper and even more subtle. These walls of muscle were built for protection, to keep others out and most painfully, to keep feelings from getting in. The intimacy that was nearly impossible in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, became deadly in the ’80s. Perhaps the paths are clearer now, but even so, but still its difficult to navigate physical and emotional intimacy.
For some, they are one in the same. Physical intimacy equals emotional intimacy. For others, sex cannot and should not coexist with emotion. Sex is, well, just sex. For most, the grey area remains unambiguously grey. What is true for one is not necessarily true for the other. What is true in one moment, may not be true in the next.
Maybe its easier now, and men are more successful at it. Writing on intimacy will take time and will likely make me very unpopular. Stay tuned.
In the end, having a great body is its own reward, the by-product of a healthy life-style, feeling alive, working out the frustrations of the day with iron plates or a stair-master and modulating those endorphins.
In any event, Norm and Louis were there, on the second floor overlooking the iron plates, the cables, machines and sweating bodies. Aside from the leather jackets and Harleys, they looked to me like any other men running a successful business. Had they been straight, they might have been in the Lions Club.
I found out much later that Norm was more than a successful businessman. Earlier in his career, he designed two of the most iconic holy grails of sex, drugs and Rock ’n Roll that brought gay men to New York in the first place.
In City Boy, Edmund White says this:
“Norm … ‘a part-time beau’ … designed the St. Mark’s Baths and ‘the Hindenburg of discos,’ The Saint. Seemingly a prototype of the muscular gay males who would come to rule Chelsea, he grew up a bookish nerd in Florida, where his invalid father ‘would lie in bed drinking and insulting his big, fearful, skulking son, calling him a creep and a faggot.’”
Who knew? I guess everyone knew, except me.
The last time I saw them, I was in line to board the ferry to Fire Island. They were resting from the 20-foot walk from the boat. I went to say hello.
Norm looked up. His face was blank and poorly shaven. He tried to speak but all that came out was a raspy groan. Louis smiled and did the talking.
In a moment, I was back in line to the ferry. Louis was helping Norm into a medical transport van.
Pride Tirade 2021
Story and Recording by John Kelly
Happy as I limp my wrist in pride for us — the outcast, the maligned, the persecuted, the entrapped, the murdered, the sweated, the followed, the avoided, the violated, the blackmailed, the serial-tattooed, the sneered, the ostracized, the erased, the hated, the invisible, the raped, the tolerated, the patronized, the parodied, the joke, the denigrated, the evicted, the diminished, the emasculated, the de-promed, the expelled, the therapized, the shock-treated, the lobotomized, the numbed and the drugged, the lost, the dead, the erased, the removed from tangible history, the persistent dwellers in blessed proximity, the survivors, the warriors, the steadfast, the persistent, the inclusive, the non-ageist, the color blind, the expansive, the essential, the imaginative, the true, the warriors, the activists both stewing and shout spewing, the long term survivors demanding to be honored, the generational glue that is gold, the striving and striding toward our place in the sun that demands to be respected, and the imperative that we acknowledge that the AIDS pandemic ruptured our inter-generational dialogue, and our personal, systemic, collective and more generally cadenced growth.
This/MY generation of artists — and OUR audiences — disappeared.
YOU are standing on our generational, grave–like, culturally curtailed, and tribally intrinsic sinkhole. You may be afloat and faring ok on the gravitas of a vast family of ghosts and heart shattering loss, of dead young unresolved spirits. Advance, as we had done, in your own way and manner, and as you continue to grow and transform the world, please aim to bless the ground on which you re-trace our analog step.
WE walk the very same path.