Richard, Ed, Robert, Jimmy, Frank, Stuart, John, Fred, Louis, David, Michael, Vince, Steve, Gary, Jeff, Wade… A few of my friends and former lovers whose lives were cut short by HIV/AIDS.
LGBTQ Boomers, also known as The Stonewall Generation, experienced loss in great numbers during the early years of the AIDS pandemic.
HIV would accelerate during the 1980s, before peaking in 1995. By then, I’d lost almost everyone I cared about and loved.
Ed was hospitalized before anyone knew what the disease was, when it was being referred to as Gay Related Immune Deficiency (or GRID). He was my first teenage crush and I cried for weeks when he was moved from his home in Stockton to San Francisco, to what would become known as the country’s first AIDS ward. Ed’s wife would die too, leaving their children orphans.
Bob was a millionaire with a big heart, who gave this high school dropout a place to stay and help with a job. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, with a gorgeous smile and the looks of an aging surfer. I felt safe with Bob, and knew he genuinely cared about my well-being.
Jimmy was a typical college frat boy, and all the men loved him. I cherished our late-night secret friendship.
Frank. I was hustling on San Francisco’s Polk Street when we met. My first exposure to the leather subculture South of Market. By day, he was a well-known chef at Cordon Bleu, by night, a master in bars and private clubs that defined the city’s S&M scene.
Stu was an outdoorsman. Masculine, he showed me that not all gay men were effeminate. Burly but athletic, he enjoyed hiking and camping, occasionally cruising the gay beach along the Sacramento River near downtown, which is where we met. I still remember his voice, “Get on a Greyhound bus and spend time with me in Lake Tahoe.”
John and I were both married when we met, left our wives and moved in together, throwing away our fake hetero/bisexual lives. He was a pharmacist who grew psychedelic mushrooms in our kitchen. I spent my first Christmas in the Castro with John. Unfortunately, I was too young and stupid to realize the value of our relationship.
Fred. It took us awhile before realizing we were better friends than lovers. Before Fred got sick, he maxed out his credit card with limo service to and from Buffalo Club and The Merc; watering holes where we spent a lot of time drinking cheap beer. I still laugh when remembering our roller skating around Lavender Heights (before it was referred to as such), Fred listening to his favorite singer, Olivia Newton-John, on his Walkman.
Louis and I were tight, like brothers. He was as gay as we come (i.e., flamboyant), but he was street smart from growing up around inner-city gangs. We hung out in downtown Oakland, or Oak-town as locals call it, at funky dives like Sounding Board. I was shocked to see so many junkies shooting-up in its mensroom: an image forever etched in my memory. Louis liked gangbangers on the downlow. Once, while at a walk-up window at Der Weinerschnitzel in Del Paso Heights, a cashier called Louis a faggot. Fearless queen that he was, he jumped thru the window, and beat the crap out of the employee. It landed Louis in Sacramento County Jail.
David was a Puerto Rican lowrider with a classic 1960s Chevrolet Impala, which he trusted me with many times. I’d pile all my buddies into that ride, collect bridge toll and gas money, before driving to either Oaktown or San Francisco (from Treasure Island Naval Base where we all lived). One of my most-embarrassing moments of all-time, includes being pulled over and searched on Folsom Street while lying face-down on the pavement, arms and legs spread. I was just as surprised as the officers when they opened a duffel in the trunk, finding David’s leather gear including hoods and handcuffs!
Michael, the son of a law enforcement officer. Like Louis, he too could not stay out of trouble. But like many white boys with a father behind a badge, he managed to avoid any jailtime. Michael wouldn’t stop driving drunk until overturning his car late one night in Land Park. He sobered-up and got clean eventually, but it was too late. Michael’s way out was suicide.
Vince, Michael, and I were a trio found weekends at the bars and clubs in California’s capital city, Sacra-tomato. The three of us raised hell at Bojangles, Wreck Room, Faces, Buffalo Club, Western, The Merc, Steamworks, Club Baths…
Steve. A tortured graffiti artist, straight most of the time, gay some of the time; usually with me, and a few others, mostly art groupies. Steve ran away to New York City and became an AIDS activist. He sure knew how to act-up and fight back.
Gary broke my heart, and all my friends hated him for it.
Jeff and I struggled to maintain a five-year relationship once he revealed his diagnosis. We were both divorced and had children, yet our pasts were very different. He’d grown-up around a white-supremist and the Ku Klux Klan. Jeff was plagued by a nightmare since high school, his father waking him gun-in-face, whispering “no son of mine is going to be a faggot.” The experience tormented him. When I met his father, his first words to me (while pulling a knife from his pocket) were, “See this? This is my n***** sticker!”
Wade died less than a decade ago. There were others. My husband’s ex, Jamie. Both were long-term survivors.
Otherwise known as Unicorn, Jamie’s biggest joy came from being the coat check guy in one of the leather bars South of Market in San Francisco. He wore a kilt, with piggy (or devil) tail underneath! I gained his approval when gifting the Trekkie a Star Fleet Academy windbreaker one Christmas.
I did not include any last names in this blogpost to avoid conflict with family members. Unfortunately, some were or still might feel ashamed about sexuality, or AIDS specifically. In more than a handful of obits, the families list an opportunistic infection or collateral disease as cause of death, rather than AIDS.
While HIV/AIDS may have erased their lives, my memories it has not. My life, and their lives, will comprise The Men Who Shaped My Gay Life, the final story in my forthcoming memoir trilogy.
A few of my classmates told me their parents forbade them from being my friend, including neighborhood boys like my bestie who lived across the street. Ironic, considering closeted but obviously gay Dick, would later leave our small town for San Francisco; employed at the most-popular store on Polk Street, Headlines.
He shunned me once, outside the Oakland Coliseum Arena after a Diana Ross concert. Despite being only feet from each other on the platform waiting for Bay Area Rapid Transit, he didn’t say hello, smile, or wave. Maybe my being with our small town’s notorious closet case had something to do with it.
Instead, he threw me his mother’s shade. Like many women of the 1970s, she didn’t approve of sissies, much less her son being one. When I learned he was working on one of the gayest streets in the world, I knew he’d escaped her ignorance and prejudice.
Safe inside, Dick punched keys on a register, selling rainbow flags and beads; outside, I hustled dangerous street corners and alleyways. My boyhood friend became the second person I knew to die during the emerging AIDS pandemic.
We’d grown up together. I kept our secret of spying on a married male neighbor, a nudist. Dick’s second-floor bedroom window overlooked the couple’s bedroom below. Both of us, fourteen-year-olds, curious voyeurs.
Sometimes, I’d stay overnight with my friend. His father, a firefighter, would tickle my feet while we watched television. However, Dick’s mother did not approve of me staying overnight, or being in their home, or sleeping with her son.