Cornell University is hard to get to, and well worth it. The architecture is both sleek and ancient. The students are sharp as razor blades. The statue outside the hotel we are staying on campus, a massive, nude, shiny metal bearded man, actually has a phallus, but it’s cold here, and he is a grower not a shower. We took a tour of the library, densely packed with all the knowledge there is, it seems, yet uncluttered and mildly intimidating, as friendly as archives like this get. They have most of Shaw’s texts, all first editions, leather bound ancient tomes, Audobon’s actual drawings of birds, massive desk sized reference books about medicine, leaves, abolitionists, the Gettysburg address – the fucking real one, on paper, written with a leaky pen, witchcraft. We are shown an ancient lambskin covered text written in Latin, from 1496, including the very first artistic representation of a woman hanging out with a devil. The old ass woodcut gets its props. Women have been down with the devil ever since. We can’t read it, but we know what it means. It is what to look for when you think you have spotted a witch. A list of witch attributes, likes, dislikes, turn-ons, turn-offs, favorite weekend activity. Cauldrons and capes seem to dominate, but it really is another example of vagina dentate, as if we needed more. But here we kick it with the old school, because Cornell is a really old school. Built in 1864, it was the first coed, non-sectarian university in the world. Cornell rocks major scholarly cock and has done for over a century.
What we have come to see, is a very specially selected collection of works, photographs and letters. The birth of the homosexual culture in modern society. There are correspondences to Gertrude Stein, written in shaky script, later fan letters that speak of the new women’s bookstores, a solemn remembrance of the lesbian novels once surreptitiously bought in cigar stores, illicitly sold by the Mafia back in the day. A diary of a man dying of AIDS, his blueprint for his square on the AIDS Quilt, what he wanted on it, what he didn’t want on it. Our Anne Frank, no less tragic. He wrote with girlishness at times, then anger at times, rage at times, sadness at times, compassion at times, pettiness at times, then outrageously gleeful agitation – humanity thrown into the white hot light of impending death, for when we die, we do not go into blackness, but into the light, if we follow what was said in “Poltergeist.”
There is a document from the founder of ACT-UP, the Latino division, a man who demonstrated because he refused to die without reason, without help from the government that would promise him the best care and then refuse it when it was found that he was a homosexual and a minority to boot. He said that he demonstrated because if there was a cure, it was the responsibility of medicine to find it, to use all their resources at hand to seek the combination of chemicals that would eradicate the virus, cauterize the wounds, stunt its growth – then finally invent a vaccine. He demonstrated because his pleas for justice and equality, health care that was affordable, dependable and all encompassing, fell on deaf ears. He demonstrated because he did not wish to watch his friends and lovers die in vain. I read the words out loud, a song of revolution, written a quarter of a century ago, and disappointingly little has changed.There are drugs today, that help, extend and enhance the quality of life, that free us from the crippling symptoms, the slow deterioration of the body and mind – yet there is still no cure, nor is there a vaccine. Even the scientists granted awards to research and come up with a cure for AIDS have found themselves threatened by shadowy figures calling all hours of the night, asking where the money they were given is, money that would and could cause the disease to halt, to stop spreading, to heal the sick, to protect those yet uninfected, to find the cure. This is today, not then. Now.
There was a particularly affecting piece, a cardboard box, painted within bright hues of yellow and green, with columns that a commedia del arte figurine would slide up and down, and a poem written on the box itself. The words ask for the ancestor, not the biological grandfather, but the true predecessor, from one who had passed through the gates of Ellis Island in the 30s, looking for freedom and the love of another man. The poet asks if the ancestor came in the 30s, in his 30s. He goes on to ask for the unnamed doors he would walk through, the secret nightclubs where men who loved men would gather, the lovers he’d remembered or had forgotten, if he was afraid, as now the poet was afraid. A rumor had evolved during the 80s, in New York, that all the gays infected with the virus were to be quarantined on Ellis Island, and so the poet pondered the irony of that. The gateway to the land of the free, home of the brave, would become a prison for the wretched masses, who yearned to breathe free, but suffocated silently through fear, hostility, homophobia, ignorance and injustice.
Reading the poem aloud, tears caught in a lump in my throat, for even after all these years we yet have not seen progress. We will die, just like the poet did, due to the apathetic nature of our government, because we are seen as aberrations, perversions, sexual outlaws, who receive God’s wrath in a neatly wrapped package called HIV. If only there were a return address. If only we could see that inside, gay or straight, man or woman, or somewhere in between, still beats a heart, identical to the next. That same heart knows what it feels to break, and to fall, and to be betrayed, and to betray, and to be mended, and the actions of the heart do not choose whom it might love voluntarily, causing problems for all those equipped with one, wreaking havoc at times, or providing life with beauty so majestic, yet ever still invisible to the naked eye. If only we could make everyone everywhere see that love, no matter the lover, or the beloved, feels exactly the same within, that love refuses to discriminate, and will conquer all with the same force. We are all slaves to this, the most powerful of all human emotions, and all of our history on the earth, the creation of nations and great civilizations, every frailty and achievement, was bourne out of love.
The most affecting pieces in the archives so lovingly set aside for us by our kind docents, Brenda and Andrea, were the personal photo albums made by lovers past. These are the true wondrous and rare artifacts that never make it to the history books. They are small black and white exposures, somewhat lightened with age. One book was bound with a red cover and thick black pages, and the clothing suggests a period after 1920 but not before 1930. The photographs throughout tell a story of two women, living in rural country, and for a while, it was just one, taking a picture of the other, with the loving lens of the photographer who is truly intimate, in love with the subject. Every shot is evidence of love, as they are all beautiful, all unposed yet strikingly compelling. In later years, it seems they had formed a friendship with two men, about the same age, with the same bond that held them tightly together. From this friendly quartet, I wonder if the picture taken in the meadow, of the two women sharing an extremely erotic kiss, hands on thighs, lips tightly locked together, was choreographed or taken candidly. We will never know. Their secrets died with them, but their photographs remain, leaving us to wonder what their lives were like, how lucky they were to have each other, and then later, a sort of family. They looked happy in every shot. I sincerely hope that they were. Another album, slightly younger than the first, was from a male couple documenting their marriage ceremony somewhere near Niagara Falls. The one is a Tony Curtis look-a-like, and the other is a slightly taller, fair haired fellow with movie star looks and pearly white teeth who beams with joy in every shot. The groom and the other groom cut the cake together, amidst friends, and even though they are all smiles, the secrecy of the ritual is apparent even though the ceremonial affectations of the tradition of nuptials seem uninterrupted. The party is small enough not to raise anyone’s suspicions, and the couple on the cake are a tiny plastic bride and groom.
These photo albums contain the history that has not yet been documented. In the world we live in today, these people do not exist, but here, in the hallowed halls of knowledge, the pieces are lovingly kept, safe and orderly, waiting for future publication, when the world acknowledges love as the true common denominator. What binds us all together and makes equality simpler and far more attainable than anyone realizes. Love. To love. If I had a glass, I would raise it.