Coming of AIDS

Bethesda Fountain
Bethesda Fountain

Dedicated to every angel in America—then and now.

Coming of age, as I did, during the 1980s meant that I came of age in the midst of the AIDS crisis. I entered middle school the same year Ronald Reagan took over the White House, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported the first cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma among gay men, before “AIDS” got its name. I entered college the same year ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) took over the New York Stock Exchange and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) finally invited activists to participate in discussions about AIDS research and treatment, before medicine was available to anyone who wasn’t rich. By the end of the decade, more than one hundred thousand Americans had died from the disease. At the time, I knew none of them.

But I did know about AIDS. I feared it, probably more than anything else in the world, even nuclear war. I felt it: every time I thought about or had sex; every time I visited New York City (I was from Albany); every time I went to church or watched CNN; every time I got hard flipping through the pages of Sports Illustrated. AIDS was everywhere back then. You couldn’t escape it, as badly as I wanted to. My closeted adolescence was marked by persistent bouts of terror, the haunting certainty that I, too, would inevitably “get it.” This was no way to grow up.

I suppose I could say that I wish I knew then what I know now, but I didn’t. Hindsight is only clear because life, as it unfolds, is not. It takes time to make sense of things—especially sex and love and identity, the threat of an early death—but as James Baldwin reminds us, we must “earn our death” with our life. And I thank God I still have time to work on that. I do know more now. I know that the AIDS crisis could have been prevented. I know that it was caused by prejudice and neglect at the highest levels of church and state. I know that the late Ronald Reagan has blood on his hands. I know the extent of the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. I know that ACT UP was brave, and that AIDS activists were burdened by internal battles over strategy and tactics. I know that women and people of color and trans* people have always been on the front lines. I know that one’s access to affordable treatment still depends on one’s race, class, nationality, and gender. I know that AIDS is far from over, here at home and everywhere else. I know that HIV rates are still rising in too many communities. I know how beautiful and complicated it can be to love across the color line. I know that my story is just one story, that the full story of AIDS has not yet been told, that certain voices have been left out, and that all stories—heard and unheard—are bound up together in some way. That’s what I know now. Back then, all I knew was that AIDS was a death sentence. I knew that I was homosexual. I knew that I couldn’t tell anyone. I knew that I was in love with a black boy from New York City. And I knew that I was fucking terrified.

* * *

The first time I had sex with another boy I thought I was going to die. I’d been raised very Catholic, and in that world, homosexuality was among the worst of sins. Perhaps not as bad as murder—or abortion, which the Church equated with murder—but definitely worse than “self-fornication,” which some of my Catholic “elders” assured me would result in blindness. Despite these dire warnings, I masturbated much of my way through middle school. When I had to get glasses in seventh grade, I saw it as a clear sign that God was already beginning to exact His vengeance upon me for my nightly sins. I then resorted to jerking off under thick blankets, as efficiently as possible, in the hope that He wouldn’t catch me. By the time I first encountered a dick other than my own—in July 1985—I was already stroking my way straight (as it were) to Hell.

It was hot as hell that summer—the kind of hot that made adolescent boys smell even funkier than normal. In those pre-deodorant days, no amount of cologne could have spared those around me. But believe me, I gave it my best shot. It didn’t help that I had taken up sports—any sport, any time, anywhere. I always carried a bottle of Polo in my gym bag (this should have been another sign, though not from God). After practices and games, I would apply the cologne liberally—the more I sweat, the worse I smelled, the more I spritzed. It wasn’t long before my father had enough of this: “Jesus Christ! You smell like a French whore!” he would exclaim. I was confused by this—no one in my family had ever been to France—and I certainly did not appreciate my devout Catholic father’s hypocrisy in taking the Lord’s name in vain. Then again, Dad was an Irishman, so I learned early on that he could accommodate a certain amount of inconsistency. I also learned to pick my battles.

I rarely say this now, but I was lucky to grow up in the suburbs, where swimming pools abound. It took me years to figure out why my mother so strongly encouraged me to “go for a swim” every time I walked through the front door during summers in middle school. Chlorine probably saved our family back then—from my “natural” fragrance and Ralph Lauren’s manufactured one. But come fall, she, too, had had enough. I returned from school one day to find a big stick of “fresh scent” Right Guard on my bedroom dresser. Mom was the kinder, subtler parent.

* * *

Emmanuel was also an adolescent jock, though I remember that he smelled more like sweet lotion than sweaty cologne. We met for the first time in Señora Persico’s sixth grade Spanish class. Emmanuel was the new kid, introduced to us all as Manolo, which is Spanish for “God is with us.” Several kids snickered, partly, I’m sure, because his Spanish name sounded like a mix of cooking oil and the Latin boy band that was popular at the time, but also because it was probably beyond the reach of my mostly white classmates to see the image of God in a fourteen year old black kid. I’m sure Emmanuel could sense this. On the first day of school, he seemed distant: quiet, intense, cautious. Who could blame him? He had transferred to our upstate suburban middle school from “the city,” a place I had visited many times as a child, where classrooms no doubt looked a lot different from the one he was now sitting in. When he was assigned to the empty desk next to mine, I was never more grateful for alphabetical seating. “Hola, Manolo!” I blurted out like some culturally incompetent welcome wagon, “Yo soy Timoteo!” Emmanuel looked me up and down with great skepticism, my grey V-neck sweater vest and thin-laced Docksiders clearly no match for his bright-colored sweatshirt and fat-laced Adidas sneakers. I must have seemed so foreign to him. “I’m not Spanish, hombre.” I muttered some awkward defense, in English, about how I knew that, but that Señora Persico wanted nosotros to hablamos Español in class. Eventually, he almost smiled at me, with an equal mix of caution and pity. I fell immediately in love.

Though my attraction to Emmanuel had many sources—he was new and cool, tough and elusive, smart and beautiful—our relationship was forged, initially, by a more specific kind of desire. I needed a Spanish tutor, and Emmanuel, the New Yorker, was pretty fluent. After a bit of pressure, Señora Persico let us team up in the language lab. Manolo y Timoteo. Together, we’d breeze through the lessons, and then replace the Spanish language cassettes with mixed tapes of rap music his buddies from back home would send him. This was the first time I had ever heard this kind of music, and I fell in love with it, too. Emmanuel and I would write notes back and forth about which songs we liked best, and why, always in a chicken-scratch “Spanglish” to give us cover if we were caught. (We never were.) I spent many hours alone in my basement copying Emmanuel’s mixed tapes on my Sony dual cassette boom box, and many more hours in my bedroom, also alone, jerking off to thoughts of the two of us breaking it down as DJs scratched and MCs flowed in the background. I still get horny sometimes when I listen to old-school Hip Hop, especially L.L. Cool J, who at the time looked like a slightly older version of Emmanuel. (It wasn’t just the ladies who loved Cool James!)

My relationship with Emmanuel wasn’t all language lessons and mixed-tape masturbation. You see, in addition to being a Spanish whiz and a pioneering connoisseur of rap, he was also a spectacular athlete, and my father was the high school basketball coach. I can only imagine how excited my father must have been the first time he saw him play ball: his lightning-quick first step, his long arms and lanky torso, his then oversized feet seemingly made of springs. Turns out they had much more in common than hoops. My father had grown up in and around New York City, and was always eager to talk about the place. Emmanuel had lost his father at an early age, and was eager for the type of coaching and mentoring my father was famous for giving his players. My mother loved Emmanuel, too, and his mother me. We were both only children and “mama’s boys,” and it wasn’t long before our mamas started referring to each of us as “second sons.” Over those early years—from the fall of 1983 to the spring of 1985—we became the brothers we never had but always wanted. We would often joke about this, being “brothers from another mother,” and it felt good to laugh about such things rather than labor over them for too long.

* * *

It was no surprise to anyone that when my parents told me I could invite a friend to come with us on our trip to Disney World the summer after eighth grade, I asked Emmanuel. My family didn’t have much money—and besides, my mother wouldn’t fly—so we drove from Albany to Orlando. Our white Dodge Aries station wagon had no air conditioning or FM radio, twin disasters that resulted in two increasingly disgruntled teenagers. Emmanuel and I spent much of the trip with the windows rolled down and our Walkman’s over our ears. Our gangly legs became entangled as we searched in vain to make more room in the backseat for bodies we could barely contain. This was the first time we’d been so close physically, and it was hard. I mean this quite literally: as we drove south, we kept getting erections. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in the company of an adolescent boy knows that this is perfectly normal. Fourteen-year-old boys get hard brushing their teeth. But this was different: we were aroused.

This was not an ideal situation. Emmanuel and me, jammed into an Aries wagon, broad daylight, my parents positioned comfortably in the front seats, perfectly oblivious to the hormonal hell being experienced in the backseat by two overheated adolescents with chronic, raging boners. We decided to handle the situation as best we knew how: by comparing dick size. First, we made sure that my folks, already deep in conversation about something or other, thought we were just playing with our hand-held video games. Then, we put a blanket over our heads and bodies—pitched a tent, as it were—rubbed our crotches aggressively to make sure we would be putting our best dicks forward, and then whipped them out. In retrospect, this was nuts, but it made perfect sense to us right then and there. His was slightly longer and darker. Mine was a bit thicker and pinker. Both had impressive heads, at least for that age. I was pleased, even relieved, to see that I measured up, and I suspect he felt much the same way (this was before either of us learned fully of Black “myths” and Irish “curses”). Boys are funny about their penises: the only thing better than playing with your own is the visible confirmation that yours compares favorably to the others in the room—or in this case, the car. We checked each other out for a couple of minutes, long enough to know we liked what we saw, and then put our junk back in our trunks. We removed the blanket, put our Walkman’s on, and stuck our heads out the window like a couple of puppies in heat.

All of this was happening as we entered South Carolina. When my parents stopped to get gas at “South of the Border,” the weirdest place I’ve ever been, Emmanuel and I exploded from the car and ran into the restroom, sat and stroked in separate stalls, and emptied our own tanks. We never talked about it; just a head nod and a smile as we washed our hands. It was either that, or explode. As we got back into the car, we both noticed the sandy-haired, blue-eyed gas station attendant with “Jose” on his nametag. (They all had “Jose” on their nametags, the boys anyway, which is one of the things that made “South of the Border” so weird.) He was frowning at us—not a grumpy, I-hate-my-job kind of frown, but the far more menacing, I-hate-you kind that naïve Yankees sometimes get when they travel together, white and black, below the Mason-Dixon. This was probably the first time it really occurred to me that Dixie was different, that our difference—our friendship—was something abnormal. Fortunately, our final destination was Disney, where dreams, evidently, come true.

* * *

That first night in Florida was the most thrilling and terrifying of my life. Emmanuel and I laid there on the queen-size bed in silence, near darkness. My parents had rented a modest place on the outskirts of Orlando. It had two bedrooms—one for them, the other for us—separated by a long hallway with a shared bathroom in the middle of it. My heart was racing, sweat running down my face and chest and crotch as if my body were a kind of in-house hot spring. I was hard again. I thought Emmanuel might be asleep until he said, “It’s too hot for clothes.” Then he kicked off the covers, pulled off his shorts and underwear, and took off his shirt. This was the first time I had ever seen another boy totally naked. It was exquisite. His sinewy body was soft and smooth, tight patches of black hair just visible beneath his armpits and around his swelling cock. He was skinny, skinnier than me, which for some reason I found very exciting. I looked at him, awkward and anxious, and slowly removed my clothes as well.

Then I panicked. In something like a postlapsarian spaz attack, I rolled over on my stomach and turned away from him. I couldn’t look at Emmanuel any more. Or perhaps I didn’t want him to look at me. “What’s wrong?” he whispered. “Nothing,” I snapped back, “Good night.” Truth is I didn’t know what the fuck to do. I had never been this naked, this close, to anyone, boys or girls. Sure, I had kissed a few girls—with tongue, even—and I had copped a feel or two in the movie theater. But only with the good Catholic ones who would never, ever (thank God!) let you touch them underneath their clothes, or (God forbid!) without them. Sure, I had bragged about “getting some” to my boys in the locker room, but we all know boys tell the biggest lies about girls when they’re in the locker room. I was no different.

But this was different: Emmanuel and I were in the bedroom. I regretted ever inviting him. I wanted to go home, throw away all those goddam mixed tapes, and forget any of this ever happened. My meltdown was accompanied by several long minutes of silence, the kind that leaves just enough room for sinful thoughts. I laid still. Still hard, hardly breathing. I heard a soft rustle of the sheets. Then the rising heat of Emmanuel’s body pressing gently against mine. His right leg over my left one. His penis against my pelvis, moving slowly across my ass. He was on top of me now. My dick was jammed into the mattress beneath us. “Spread ‘em,” he whispered. “No, you,” I whispered back, turning my head to the side so that his lips could touch my ear. He reached down and spread my ass apart, gently, and put his cock where we both wanted it to go. Not in, not yet, but near, next to, up against, as close as it could be without really hurting. Then he began to move his hips, back and forth, up and down, quick as hell. As quiet as he could. The friction felt fantastic. But my parents were in the next room, and the door was barely shut. Fuck! I wanted to be asleep, alone. But I was awake, aroused. Back and forth. Up and down. In and out. Even quicker now. As quiet as we could. Breathing in sync. Hands locked. Legs tangled up again. Like in the car. But different this time. Not sure how long it would last. I loved it. Then he broke his rhythm, jerked several times, and collapsed onto me, the sticky sweat between his chest and my back sucking us together. Fifteen minutes of fabulous.

When Emmanuel finally rolled over, I escaped to the bathroom. I reached back and felt cum all over my ass. I reached forward and stroked myself with it until I produced a load of my own. As I stood over the toilet—wet, withered, wanked out—I heard my mother’s sweet, familiar voice in the hallway: “You OK, honey?” Fuck! I took a long, deep breath: “I’m fine.”

* * *

I wasn’t fine, and I wouldn’t be for quite some time. The blood had really freaked me out. That night was the first time I’d ever found blood in my ass (it wouldn’t be the last). Not much, but enough. This could only mean one thing: I was going to die. What’s more? I felt like I deserved to die. As a kid growing up in the Church, you learn three things about sex: first, when married people have sex, they have a child; second, when unmarried people have sex, they commit a sin; and third, when two gay people have sex, they go to Hell. No pleasure. In each case, just a means to an end, predestination by another name. This was the simple “truth” that had been fed to me alongside the wine and wafer for as long as I could remember. And there was no escaping that truth.

The other truth—my truth, notwithstanding the blood in my ass—is that I loved having sex with Emmanuel. And he seemed to enjoy having sex with me, too. That trip to Disney changed my life. Each night, both of us naked, more of the same: back and forth, harder and deeper, top and bottom (it was only later that I learned to call this “versatile”). In terms of quantity, if not quality, it was probably the single best week of sex I’ve ever had.

But I really couldn’t get the blood out of my head. Around the time Emmanuel and I began our affair, one that would last nearly ten years, homosexuals were starting to die in droves from AIDS, commonly referred to as the “gay plague”—or worse. At the time, neither of us knew much about AIDS, other than that you could “catch” it through a combination of bodily fluids like blood, saliva, and semen. Fucking and sucking—especially the kind that Emmanuel and I were now doing on a regular basis—was a sure death sentence, but kissing and sneezing and sweating were also considered “risky.” None of us were immune to this widespread (and often wrongheaded) public panic. Prejudice and prophylactics were everywhere. Hell, even the cops wore forearm-length rubber gloves when they arrested the activists who were protesting prejudice. But the churches were among the most dire of doomsayers. Many “Christians”—Catholics and evangelicals especially—considered homosexuality a form of “moral depravity”; AIDS was “God’s wrath against homosexuals.” I heard these morality-mortality plays over and over again from various pulpits, and each time, they penetrated a little harder and hurt a little deeper. It was like a Mass-induced mind-fuck, with President Reagan and his deputies playing a secular, supporting role. They all seemed to be preaching to the same choir—and that choir would never include people like me.

There was only one way for me to deal with all of this: fuck the Church and find some other way to figure out what the hell was going on. And that’s just what I did. Each Sunday, I would sit in the pews and tune everything out, dead to that world. After my Confirmation—required of me by my parents—I even stopped going to Communion; no more body and blood of Christ for me. All the while, Emmanuel and I continued to build a secret life together even as we denied its many risks. Despite the corrosive fear and shame we both felt in different ways, desire trumped everything else when it came to fucking. And we found every possible way to do so. We would sleep over each other’s houses, room together at summer camps, and eventually shack up in cheap motels. And we would often steal away during school and sports competitions: locker rooms, bathrooms, wooded areas, darkened hallways. In high school, we even arranged our schedules so that we would have gym class during the same period. The football coach was our physical education teacher, and he frequently let us go off on our own to play basketball, which invariably ended with a very different kind of “one-on-one” before our next class. When we both made the varsity basketball team—my father’s team—we initiated a new ritual: Emmanuel would come over to our house in the late afternoons on game days so we could take a “nap” and then shower together before catching a ride back to school for the evening’s game. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe we never got caught, but we were pretty clever and we counted on the fact that it never even occurred to anyone that we were doing anything out of the ordinary. We were just best friends, co-captains, getting ready for the big game.

I suppose it didn’t hurt that we had pretty, popular girlfriends for most of high school and college, the perfect “beards” (another term I would learn years later) to hide our increasingly brazen sexual trysts. More and more, our lives were rooted in routine deception. Looking back, my greatest regrets from this period of my life—and there are many—involve all the girls, and then women, I lied to along the way, some of whom I loved, almost as much as I loved Emmanuel. It is to their credit that they found ways to love me properly long before I figured out how to love myself, much less reciprocate. Closeted gay men—especially those, like us, who could easily “pass” or “cover”—are often terrible partners to women. As ashamed as I am to admit it, I see clearly now that this is a form of abuse. But it’s probably too late to apologize.

* * *

All this deception was its own kind of private hell. Throughout those years, I was torn apart by the terrible inner suspicion that I was indeed a homosexual—not just Emmanuel’s best friend and lover, but a full-blown faggot. I began to check out other boys in the locker room, to fantasize about the athletes I read about in Sports Illustrated: Michael Jordan, Brian Bosworth, Bo Jackson, Greg Louganis. But those weren’t the only images that stuck with me. I was also quietly obsessed with the increasingly frequent coverage—in newspapers and on television—of those who were dying of AIDS: the gay men, now numbering in the many tens of thousands, with emaciated torsos, sunken cheeks, purple lesions, and wheezing coughs. These people terrified me, precisely because I was still so afraid that I would someday share their fate. I lost count of the number of years There but for the grace of God go I played on a torturous feedback loop in my head. Every now and then, I can still hear it.

Therein lies the toxic tautology at the core my adolescent worldview: if you were gay, you got AIDS; if you got AIDS, you would die; and if you died, you deserved it—because you were gay. Back then there was no alternative messaging. Nowadays, adults like to tell queer kids “It Gets Better,” a no doubt well-intentioned assurance that they will someday, eventually, be free. But there is no such thing as freedom, or a future, when you are sentenced to the solitary confinement of your own self-loathing. And that was the tragic irony of my closeted, Catholic adolescence: I didn’t need to die to go to Hell; I was already living it.

For some reason, not sure, I decided to take matters into my own hands during my junior year of high school. Disturbed that our public school’s health curriculum made no mention of AIDS—like the Catholic Church, it emphasized abstinence over contraception insofar as it talked about sex at all—I decided to use my position as front-page editor of the school newspaper to write an investigative article on how other schools in the area were dealing with these topics. I wrote a scathing cover story, claiming that these high schools, including my own, were failing their students by not teaching them about the dangers of AIDS and the importance of “safe sex,” a relatively new concept that I had yet to adopt in my own private life. The article made quite a splash, and it earned me the kind of praise that probably enhanced my college admissions prospects. Yet another tragic irony of my tortured teenage existence: I was celebrated for writing publicly about the very thing I was incapable of working out privately. Here I was demanding better AIDS education even as I refused to learn its lessons. Here I was challenging the stigmas surrounding homosexuals even as I was hiding my own homosexuality because of internalized stigma. And here I was advocating safe sex practices even as I failed to use condoms during sex. I was a champion hypocrite.

* * *

College was an even deeper closet. I limited myself to girlfriends, and began using condoms on a more regular basis, but only when they insisted on it. My encounters with Emmanuel were less frequent, mostly holidays and summers, and less satisfying. Sex became more of a macho competition than a team sport. The closet—and the culture—was clearly taking a toll on both of us.

“Coming out” is a long-term process not a one-time proclamation. On some level, the process started for me when I realized I was in love with Emmanuel, even before we ever had sex. But it began to accelerate, despite my best efforts at resistance, over Christmas break during my senior year of college. I met Emmanuel at his place before going out drinking with friends. He had a present for me, a used copy of Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey, the coming-of-age memoir by gay historian Martin Duberman. “He reminds me of you,” Emmanuel said, knowing that I had just finished applying to Ph.D. programs in history. He smiled as I opened the book and read the first few paragraphs of the introduction. I had never heard of Duberman, and the thought of reminding anyone of a gay historian freaked me out. Still, Emmanuel had clearly read and liked the book—which made me curious—and that was enough for me to devour it the very next night. It was the first “gay” book I ever read. My life hasn’t been the same since.

At about 4am, drunk, Emmanuel and I stumbled back to his place. I was horny. He was reluctant. He kept insisting, “I’m not really like that any more.” After a big fight—I think I called him a “cocksucker”—we ended up in bed together. As we were fooling around, he stopped me, lifted my head to his, and told me to kiss him. In all those years, now nearly a decade since Disney World, this was the first time we had ever kissed each other. It was also the first time I had kissed another guy. I told him I loved him. This, too, was a first. He smiled, and then asked to suck my dick.

In the morning, Emmanuel’s mother cooked us breakfast. He was in the bathroom, and she sat down with me at the table. “I saw you and Emmanuel sleeping this morning.” Sensing my shock—this was the first time anyone had said anything about us out loud—she added: “I love you for loving my son. I know he doesn’t always show it, but he loves you, too.” She stood up from the table, put her hand on my shoulder, and kissed me on the top of the head. I smiled, and then choked down the tears.

* * *

In the fall of 1993, shortly after moving to New York City to start graduate school, I went to see the first installment of Tony Kushner’s epic two-part play, “Angels in America.” I was blown away by what can only be described as a theatrical miracle. It was the first time I could remember seeing homosexuals represented positively in art. What struck me most, however, was not the play itself, as brilliant as it was, but the people in the audience: gays and straights, men and women, who, like the play’s main character, Prior Walter, had so far survived the AIDS crisis. That night, sitting by myself in the theater, I began to contemplate what it might be like for someone like me to be part of this kind of community. When the house lights in the theater went up, everyone around me was in tears—not the kind that dampen the cheeks but the kind that roll down like waterfalls, the kind of tears I had wanted to shed that morning at breakfast with Emmanuel’s mom. I was just now learning how to cry.

At the end of “Perestroika,” the second half of “Angels,” Prior Walter speaks directly to us: “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” The time had certainly come for me—to love Emmanuel, and myself, enough to let go and move on; to stop drowning in that toxic abyss of fear and shame that threatens the lives of far too many queer people; to come out, on my own terms and in my own time; and to start to figure out what it means to live.

Coming of age is never easy, for anyone, but AIDS certainly made it far more difficult than it needed to be. It still does. When we were growing up, AIDS seemed like a death sentence. It shaped and shattered a generation, but it did not destroy everyone or everything—not nearly. Emmanuel and I haven’t seen each other in years, but we did not get AIDS, and we did not die, and we did not go to Hell. Still, I wonder how things would have turned out for us if we had been born ten years earlier—or later.

Photo:  “Bethesda Fountain” by seanhennessy; licensed under CC BY 2.0

Author’s note: I want to thank Carissa Halston and Randolph Pfaff, who graciously invited me to read an early version of this essay at Literary Firsts in April 2012, as well as Liam Day, Scott Poulson-Bryant, Greg Harris, Marie Danziger, and Alex Green who offered amazing critical feedback on later drafts.

Timothy Patrick McCarthy
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