Five years ago, I was stunned and saddened by the death of a friend and AIDS activist. My pain was such that I had to write about it. The story appeared in Baltimore City Paper in May, 1998. My pain is such today that I have to share a piece of it here:
Upon hearing that Steve had died, I also learned his funeral would be a political event, a showy media fest in front of the White House. This was poetic justice, in a sense. Steve had given his life to the fight against AIDS. He moved from Seattle to Washington, by way of stops across the nation, following candidate Bill Clinton and demanding that if the Arkansas governor won the presidency in 1992 he make finding a cure for AIDS a top priority. Clinton promised Steve — to his face — that in his first 100 days in office, he would launch a Manhattan Project-type effort to find a cure and guarantee comprehensive health care for all Americans. To make sure that the president-elect made good on his pledge, Steve moved to the nation's capitol with his [partner] Wayne. And he made Clinton a promise of his own: "I will haunt you."
So I suppose lying in state in front of the White House was a fulfillment of Steve's vow. I know it was his final wish — when he entered the Washington Hospital Center for what would be the final time a month ago, he told Wayne he wanted a political funeral in front of Bill Clinton's house. As someone who loved him, I had no choice but to respect his wish. Still, I was angry. Color me selfish, but my friend was gone. I wanted an opportunity to mourn in a manner that I thought he deserved--something solemn, dignified, respectful.
And I wondered about AIDS activism in general. For those of us who've worked in the trenches, from caring for dying loved ones or "buddies," to shouting ourselves hoarse in the street or sitting in a jail cell, to taking on unfeeling government suits — all the while neglecting our own lives, families, relationships, and personal health — how much is enough? Steve gave up his life — apparently willingly. He fought incessantly, irritated and riled many, lost sight of his priorities time and again, and paid fuck-all attention to his own well-being. And now, by his own choice, he was giving up the only opportunity to have his friends and loved ones speak only of their love for him. What more is necessary to create visibility for the war against this disease that has murdered thousands and held activists' and caregivers' lives hostage for nearly two decades? Does some well-meaning fool have to hang himself in the village square using a long red ribbon as a noose?
Yes, I have dealt with much loss. It haunts me today and likely will do so until my dying day. But I must think of my lost loved ones and about their deaths.