The Missing Link – AIDS victims – Brief Article
WITH THOUSANDS OF GAY MEN DEAD FROM AIDS, THEIR EXPERIENCE AND WISDOM IS LOST TO THE NEXT GENERATION
In the following essay, performance artist Ron Athey proves that each generation learns from its ancestors. But what happens when most of a generation is lost to a catastrophe? Instead of a torch being handed along, it is tripped and vanishes.
We have endured that loss in our own community. A generation of gay men, who would now be in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, was reduced to a fraction of its size by the AIDS epidemic. With those who died went the insight, guidance, and advice they could have offered to those who grew up and came out after them. It is a loss that can never be recovered.
Athey knows that loss from firsthand experience. He grew up on the cusp of the lost generation, coming out before the epidemic and watching his idols, just a few years older, die of complications from AIDS. In this essay he discusses his experience as a gay man whose mentors have vanished and how he has tried to pass this missing torch through his life and on to the generation coming out now.
In 1992, I recorded a performance sound track inspired by the death of artist-writer David Wojnarowicz, which included the line “The best are already dead.” At the time I had no distance and felt like everything I cared about was gone: my closest gay friends, my idols. I could see that the volatile climate of the pandemic fueled the work of many artists and writers, but that was a poor consolation prize for loss. I felt this period of high art peaked with Diamanda Galas’s Plague Mass and Wojnarowicz’s Memories That Smell Like Gasoline. After that it all started to sound like a shrill spoken-word piece I heard once: “I have AIDS, and I’m angry.” Unendurable.
Did the number of HIV-related deaths, concentrated among gay people and artists, create a missing link, or was I overreacting? Having been involved in underground music and arts scenes, I came into the game late. I tested positive in 1986, and none of my close friends were affected by the virus. Immediately thereafter two men in my drug abuse recovery groups got sick and died. By 1991, I felt like there wasn’t going to be anyone left.
It’s hard to focus on what is lost when all the key people of a generation are exterminated and the only remaining mentor or role model possibilities are nihilistic. And then everyone begins blaming and moralizing, and there’s a lot of talk and writing about the return to ’50s morality. And everything seems irresponsible, and every dyke and healthy fag you know start having babies, and you realize you even love their children. Since I came out pre-AIDS, I have to look back to see who passed me the torch. In 1979, I was a particularly angst-ridden teen, isolated by fanatical Pentecostal family members within the confines of a grim suburb miles east of Los Angeles. Suicidal, depressed, isolated, I was always on the verge of exploding. Philosophically, there was a missing link. In direct opposition to my Pentecostal upbringing (and pre-Nietzsche for me), I had firm evidence to conclude that God no longer ran my life. And because I was undeniably a homosexual, neither did my fundamentalist family, so I left. Self-destructive, I quickly found a scene this aesthetic worked in: punk rock. Drug addiction helped me stall committing the final act. Just before I died in this isolation, through a literary lover I discovered the writings of William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, John Rechy, Andre Gide, and Jean Genet. Their writings documented past decades of subculture and philosophies bleak and abject; they read like survival skills and hope for me.
In the early ’80s I frequented the One Way, a leather-raunch bar in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. The extremes of the leather scene intrigued me, the very real hierarchies and real-enough role playing. I had taken on a gay skinhead look that year and hypothetically fit into this cult of masculinity. I didn’t know the ropes of homosex culture, but I was willing to try. I found more than jaded hedonists; I talked to sideshow-quality tattooed men and psychedelic mystic voyagers. I slowly understood the discipline and skill of cruising: the posing, fronting, and connecting. I didn’t feel old-school enough to really belong, but I was smart enough to know I was being exposed to the heyday of an intense underground and did get a taste of it before it came to an abrupt, tragic end.
AIDS is not front and center, and it is not over. We have moved on from impending doom, and there is space between the present and the climax of the death tolls. The party scene is circuit, we have family values, and the sexual underground survives thanks to the Internet. These changes are not ours alone; other populations (straight) little affected by HIV have gone through similar metamorphoses. What fueled the ’60s was rebellion against prototype. The ’70s and ’80s basked in those triumphs, but I fear the future isn’t about individuality. I hope it isn’t Scientology.
I’ve had to shed my pervert guilt to do some torch passing of my own. I’m on my knees, praying for grace. My expertise in issues involving the meaning of life, death, and the universe–drug use/abuse, safer sex/poz sex, underground art scenes, and the identity crisis of fitting into the gay community when you don’t fit the mainstream mold–is called on quite often. I attract nutty poz boys, art students, recovering drug addicts, and the fearful. They range from 16 to 30 years old. Some of them I’ve never met but have been E-mailing for years, and they call me Uncle Ron or Dad or Big Daddy. Very dear.
Athey is a performance artist and contributor to L.A. Weekly.
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