It’s World AIDS Day.
My first husband and five close friends died of AIDS.
I met Charlie Karp when we were both in El Grande de Coca-Cola in Key West, a strange pastiche of a variety show performed entirely in Spanish. It was my first and only drag role, and honestly I wasn’t very good at being a boy. For one thing, I had then and will always have a butt. For another, I couldn’t get that shoulder/high center of gravity thing down. If anyone walks like a girl, it’s me. Charlie, however, as the Master of Ceremonies, was spectacular. I have never come so close to losing it onstage because he was just so damn funny. The two of us both taught aerobics at the time and were once asked to be on a local panel on fitness. We couldn’t get a straight answer out between us; he was cracking me up so hard that my cracking up started to crack him up.
Terry Dahlstrom was only 26 when he died. I thought of him as my gay little brother; he was born in the same month and year as my real little brother, who’s decidedly straight. Terry was a gifted cartoonist, and once drew up some panels about a young guy with a buzz cut who is going through the torture of HIV testing (it used to take weeks to get results). I called him in a panic, asking how much was true. He said that it was based on a friend and not to worry. A year later he was dead. He’d gone incognito for several months before, not wanting his friends to see the way the disease ravaged his body.
Deva Whitney took me under his wing at the University of Utah. A beautiful man who had started as a dancer and become a lighting designer, Deva also gave massages. We would talk about everything while he worked, books, sex, his being gay, my current boyfriend (he never thought they were quite right, and he was correct), my writing for the college paper, plays, and good old dishing. In the pre-email/Facebook days, friends would die and you wouldn’t hear for years. That’s what happened with him; I found out when I went to a college reunion in 2001. Apparently, his funeral, which he’d completely planned, was spectacular; when I was in Salt Lake in 2011, people would immediately regale me with details. He went out as he’d lived, a singular voice who adored beauty and spectacle.
Felix Rice and I took one look at each other in Key West and knew we were going to be inseparable. We stayed that way in the year before I left the island. He had an exquisite singing voice and a devilish grin, and he was marvelous company. He’d owned a bar in London in the 70s, and famous people had come there, including Herve Villechaise. Once, Tatoo propositioned gravel-voiced amazon Susan Tyrell, saying, “What would you say to a little fuck?” She growled back, “I’d say, Hello, Little Fuck!” Just one of Felix’s stories. Don’t know how many were true, but man, could he entertain.
Michael Brennan got sick the same time as my husband Karl. He was my masseur in New York and lived in a brownstone on Bank Street. He loved to knit, and he loved art; his apartment was filled with framed posters from different Met exhibitions. There was one detail of a little girl from a Velasquez portrait, not a famous one, but very beautiful. She had died young and Michael told me he found her particularly moving because even though her life had been so brief, that portrait had given her eternity. He must have died the same time as Karl. I called his phone in August of ’89—Karl had died in July—and it had been disconnected. Michael and I had no mutual friends. That’s how I found out he was gone.
And then, of course, there was Karl Blankenburg. My first genuine soulmate, my left-handed, born one day after and ten years before me, half Portuguese half German man. We had an intense and wonderful 2 and a half years together before his body started to break. Then we had another 2 and a half years to fight saying goodbye. Karl died on July 10th, exactly five years to the day that I’d met him.
I loved all of them, some more than others. And as I’ve written before, the price of those friendships, those loves, was to have to lose them way too early. I would not have traded the pain of those goodbyes if it would have meant never having them in my life.
AIDS is still present, and still needs to be defeated. My stories are the tiniest fraction of the tiniest micro-percentage of all the lives lost. Please take a moment to reflect on the importance of this day, and give what you can.
Please do more than wear a red ribbon. It’s not enough.
If we can stop saying all these goodbyes so early, think how beautiful the world could be.