I Lost All My Gay Role Models to AIDS—Be Grateful You Won't Lose Yours

Respect your elders, because unlike mine, they'll live long, healthy lives.

Photo: Gay men and women mourning at Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco, 1989.

Not long ago, a gay 20-something told me that, as a 54-year-old unmarried man, I had no business giving advice to members of his generation. Unlike him, my “failure” of being single and childless, and, by proxy, promiscuous and shallow, meant I needed to pack up my sad-sack bags and get out of the picture.

I’m fairly certain that, when I was in my 20s, I never would have disrespected an older gay man in such an uncouth manner, considering the obstacles I faced as a young, gay adult.

I can only assume I’d have behaved differently, however, because I never had the chance. All of my older gay role models died of AIDS.

Shortly after I moved to New York, in 1987, I broke up with my boyfriend and was left with few gay friends. I joined the all-male Chelsea Gym and, within a month, a Spandex-wearing muscle jock named Jerry took me under his wing. He told me about clubs, men, how to get a better workout. We exchanged numbers and he invited me to my first post-boyfriend gay party. I had a little bit of a crush on him and he brushed it off.

A few months later, a woman phoned and invited me to another gay event: Jerry’s memorial service. She’d gotten my number from his address book and was calling all of his contacts. It wasn’t until after she phoned that I realized I’d not seen Jerry at the gym once since the party. I also didn’t realize that gym absences followed by death notices were about to become the new normal.

Greg White/Fairfax Media via Getty

Peopl mourning the deaths of friends from Aids at the vigil."Candellight vigil for Aids at Hyde Park"A consoling ritual... some of the 3,000 who attended at last night's Aids memorial rally.Over the past few years, Gerald Lawrence has learned to ration the number of funerals he goes to.At last count, he suspects has lost more than 100 lovers, friends, work colleagues and drinking buddies to Aids.It's not that he doesn't care. It's just that, like so many in Sydney's embattled gay community, he believes the traditional grieving rituals of funerals simply don't meet the needs of a community overwhelmed by grief. May 23, 1993. (Photo by Greg White/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

AIDS vigil at Hyde Park, 1993.

Mark helped me get my first job as a proofreader, which I didn’t much care for, but it sure beat waiting tables. He introduced me to the gay section at Jones Beach and Lower East Side bars, and tried to set me up with Jeff, who lived on the other side of my street and would sit in his little garden with a cup of coffee and people watch.

Jeff and I would greet each other on New York summer mornings until he went away–first to the hospital, then back to Atlanta so he could die at home. That service was about six months after the last time I heard him cat-call me from his window. The cancer had spread everywhere, but he never lost his sense of humor or his need to insult my fashion sense.

Shortly after, Mark called to invite me to his 40th birthday party, which was followed by another call from a mutual friend, saying Mark had been hospitalized again. His closest friends gathered together to honor his life in a different way.

Follically deprived Chris introduced me to baseball caps and martinis in the Village, and one night, informed me of his diagnosis and, judging from all of his friends’ deaths, how much time he had left. His math was correct. And there was Billy, who, in his own mind, was the biggest diva on earth, and who told people he had AIDS in hopes of getting a free 1994 Barbra Streisand ticket “in return”—it worked. By the time I received the call telling me of his death, I was numb to the repetitious news.

All of these men and countless others—statistics in death but distinctive souls while living—were older than me, but none of them lived to see 50.

Eugene Gordon/The New York Historical Society/Getty

Members of Act Up = Aids Coalition to Unleash Power hold up signs and placards during the Gay and Lesbian Pride march, New York, New York, June 26, 1988. (Photo by Eugene Gordon/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)

Members of Act Up at NYC's Pride march, 1988.

Even my gay idols disappeared by way of AIDS complications. Keith Haring, whose graffiti art made me hungry to move to New York, and whose museum exhibit I went to see while still in high school, died at the age of 31 in 1990. Freddie Mercury, whom I idolized as a teen, died in 1991 at the age of 45. Mercury’s music occupied my stereo; his posters graced my bedroom; and his gay, Castro Street butch-clone look, which, ironically, made him stand out from other rock stars, made me confident that I, too, could make an impression in an otherwise straight-centric world.

As a “gay orphan,” someone who entered his 30s with no guidance or friendship from the generation above me—no father figures—I missed out on the personal side of my history. The things I had to discover secondhand, like Stonewall and Harvey Milk. I’d hate to see the generation below me take that path deliberately, snuffing out older gay men out on purpose the way mine were taken randomly.

Things are different, yes. Our community is larger, figuratively and literally, and more visibility means less need to reach out to persons unknown. And those who protested and fought did so that life would be easier for the next generation.

But there’s an uncomfortable tendency among today’s gay youth to ignore or reject their predecessors as irrelevant and out of touch, which, considering we’re the only remaining witnesses to the gay holocaust, is absurd. We’re also the last generation, as of yet, to understand in full focus what it means to be a second-class citizen with barely any rights and zero mainstream acceptance. We know what you’re going through when homophobia rears its ugly head. Most people have a certain level of disdain for their seniors, which has always baffled me, but when that group survived a war that’s never quite been won, it’s especially troubling.

Stuart William Macgladrie/Fairfax Media via Getty

Visiting US artist Keith Haring with the mural he painting at the Art Gallery of NSW. March 01, 1984. (Photo by Stuart William Macgladrie/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Keith Haring and the mural he painted at the Art Gallery of NSW, Australia, 1984.

Sexually, we’re "daddies," and, nothing flatters me more than being objectified at this age. Perhaps the age factor suggests there is an emotional need for mature role models, but if so, it’s being muddled by the physical component. We’re satisfying a gap that a real father didn’t provide, but it can be toxic when the need lies purely in a played-out sexual fantasy. Besides, a lot of daddies I know are in their 30s.

The disdain extended to older gay men is rampant on social media—we’re called "man-whores" if we didn’t start a family (never mind that that wasn’t an option 20 years ago), “pathetic” if we still work out and have a sexual appetite, and every name in the auto-correct dictionary if we desire younger men. It’s as if we’re an uncomfortable reminder of a world people would just as soon forget.

Like those other groups, we sometimes ignore the gifts the younger generation has to offer us. That needs to change, too, and there’s no honor in millennial bashing. Most of my editors today are much younger than I am, and they help me improve my work and give me insight into the digital age of publishing. Every young gay friend I know comes with a treasure trove of information that seems both foreign and right next door.

As for men of a certain uncertain age, we’re here, we’re still queer, and you should get used to us. Thanks to the enormous success of Bohemian Rhapsody, the world has rediscovered Queen’s maple-syrup-on-acid-voiced lead singer, and everyone seems to have an opinion on the film. Everyone but the one man who should rightfully be telling the tale—Freddie Mercury. Were he alive today, I’ve no doubt he’d be a tremendous influence in the music world. Keith Haring’s art would have gone up, or down or gotten bigger or smaller, but I’d be paying attention.

And what I wouldn’t give to have seen my personal role models grow old. In my 30s, I had one relationship with a man 20 years my senior, and he was a dinosaur. A Village resident, his ex-lover died of AIDS complications, most of his friends had succumbed, and he was HIV-positive. I loved spending time with him, because, in addition to a strong physical attraction, he was an entry to a world that I’d only heard about growing up. He was Studio 54, macho men and mustaches, and life before a killer disease stopped the party short.

For me, dating him also came with a trap door, because, back then, we didn’t have PrEP or "undetectable." We had cold fear at our fingertips. The relationship lasted as long as the summer, and he never spoke to me after things ended. Within a year, I didn’t have a single gay friend or role model more than five years older than myself. Today’s queer youth have older, healthy LGBTQ people in their life who they can chose to connect with and maybe look up to.

Besides, despite all the progress that has been made, both in regards to HIV prevention and equal rights, you never know when that same trap door might open up directly under your feet.

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