The memories keep coming into my head this morning, they won’t stop.
It’s World AIDS Day and, though I know that AIDS is not just about the dead, the voices of those who have passed on are loud in my mind right now, demanding to be heard. I’m sitting at my computer and letting them spill their stories onto the page.
There’s so many.
Saj choreographed “The Acid Queen” from The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” with me in the lead role. He played the acid queen in a very colorful handmade dashiki. It was 1974 or 75, and we were performing at the first benefit for Philadelphia’s Gay Community Center, as it was called back then. The outfit he designed for me to wear (a toga of sorts with no underwear) was skimpy to say the least, and when he lifted me up, the audience saw everything I had. I didn’t care. Gay liberation meant never having to say you’re sorry to flash the world. Saj was one of my first friends to die of AIDS.
In the mid-80s, Doug and I collaborated on a spoken word dance piece called “A man pours,” based on a stream of consciousness poem I had written about AIDS. It was presented at Temple University where he was enrolled in a masters program in dance. The first AIDS dance piece, it won all sorts of accolades from the local arts community. We were coming home from a performance one night, when a gang of young thugs followed us off the subway train hurling antigay epithets at us. We ended up taking ourselves to the emergency room because the cops wouldn’t do it when Doug told them he had AIDS.
Ray was one of the oldest (and wisest) members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) at Temple University in North Philly. GLF was a radical organization dedicated to working for the liberation of all oppressed people, including queers. We sat for hours in the GLF office arguing about the best way to start revolution in this country. For me, college was a refuge from the draft, so classes were optional. Ray taught me what really mattered in life: struggling to create a better world, even if you don’t live to enjoy it. Ray never lived to see the difference our struggle made in this country. I sometimes wonder how he'd react to marriage and military as the primary goals of the current gay movement. He wouldn’t be pleased.
Simeon lived in a commune in West Philadelphia when I first met him. A pacifist and draft resister, he helped me understand that nonviolence was the only path to social change. He had lots of experience with social change, having organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in his hometown in North Carolina. He was 16 at the time. Those sit-ins were so successful that he was denounced by a bigoted radio show host named Jesse Helms (who would later be elected to Congress). Simeon eventually moved to San Francisco and so did I. In the mid-90s, as he prepared a run for the board of supervisor, he drafted me onto his campaign committee. But he never lived to see that final dream.
Kiyoshi was born in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. He was an antiwar activist before he joined the homophile movement in the late 60s and quickly became disillusioned with its assimilationist ("we're just like straight people") politics. A few days after the Stonewall Riots, he called together the gay liberation group that I eventually joined. Not thrilled with the mainstream movement that followed GLF, he continued to organize for radical social change all his life, never abandoning the philosophy of gay liberation. The last time I saw him, just before I left Philly, he told me to keep on raising hell.
Something I have never stopped doing. In all of their names.