Writing “The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience” has changed my life. It has done so in the obvious ways, namely the attention placed on the book, the numerous talks and presentations I have given throughout the country, the accolades associated with this work, and the development of a documentary inspired by the book. This book has also contributed to an ever-growing and powerful body of work honoring the early days of AIDS.
Since the book was published last fall, my journeys have taken me from Los Angeles to Austin, Baltimore, and beyond — and in my own hometown, from GMHC and SAGE to the LGBT Center and the amazing Lower East Side bookstore, Bureau of General Services — Queer Division. During my many travels, I have been asked why so much attention is being placed on the early days of AIDS at this particular moment in time.
I believe several factors explain this reemergence of the AIDS generation. First, we all took a necessary breather when the course of the epidemic was radically changed in 1996. After years of battling the virus as well as the stigma and discrimination and shortsightedness of our society at the onset of the AIDS crisis, we needed to grieve and regroup. We also were a little cautious with our treatment optimism, not so certain these new antiviral regimens would actually work. Would it just be matter of time before havoc and chaos and unbridled death returned?
As we attempted to reconcile our grief and trauma, in both proactive and avoidant ways, it became clear that that these HIV medications were, for the most part, going to work for extended periods of time. And indeed, here we are, as older adults, ready to tell our stories. Middle age is, in fact, a time to make sense of one’s life and one’s place in the world. In doing so, thoughts of accomplishments and legacy emerge.
It is perhaps in this reflection that we have come to realize that what we had accomplished as a generation is truly remarkable — a story of passion, bravery, and resilience. Despite the losses, which are too many to enumerate, we as a generation of gay men have overcome cataclysmic events to find ourselves as the elder statesmen in our population.
With this realization comes an obligation to document those early days as a testament to our actions and to those we lost, as a statement of our collective resilience, and as a tome to eternally document that period of time to inform and educate future generations. It is the action and courage of our generation and those who preceded us (a group I refer to as the Stonewall generation) that laid the foundation for so many of the social and civil rights victories our population is beginning to experience.
We also have an obligation to help those who are beginning their lives as young gay men, both HIV-positive and negative, perhaps easing this period of time as they find their places in the world, by sharing our wisdom on how to fight this horrible disease that continues to plague us.
This book has changed my life, and it has also for so many of the beautiful men whose stories are shared in those pages. These men who now have become my friends have also been transformed over the course of the last two years. The group meets regularly for lunch and dinners, and a Facebook page, The AIDS Generation Veterans Association, was launched by Sean McKenna, one of the amazing men I have come to know.
I recently spoke to several of the men depicted in “The AIDS Generation” about this article to assess their understandings. (The men have agreed to be revealed by their actual names rather than the pseudonyms assigned in the book).
Jimmy Mack, now 57 years old, who has written about the growing interest in the AIDS Generation in his blog (on TheBody.com), said that the book “hailed the beginning of a renewed interest in the AIDS Generation as witnessed by the Broadway hit ‘Mothers and Sons,’ the documentary film ‘How to Survive a Plague,’ and the HBO movie ‘The Normal Heart.’ ” This renewed interest is not simply within the general public but also among those within our social circles, as noted in the words of Jimmy’s husband, Brian Mott. A New York City school teacher, now age 49, Mott said, “The friends of mine who read the book, who perhaps knew the outline of my story, were very clear that they gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of the emotional turmoil of an HIV infection in that time in history. One of them even said something along the lines of, ‘I wonder how I might have been complicit in the stigma and the fear that was going around back then.’ ”
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