Each year World AIDS Day falls on December 1st, and on that day and most days really, I think about AIDS, and what the disease has taken from me. A lot. It has taken a lot from me. More than I can think about sometimes, more than I want to remember. More than anything should take from a person.
I grew up in the middle of the worst part of the disease. I was just a kid and I saw a lot of people die, healthy beautiful young men who had come to San Francisco in the ’70s to escape their small towns and the rural homophobia and the terrible families who rejected them. They were outcasts and they were heartbroken and shunned and so they came to San Francisco and they were welcomed by my amazing hometown with open arms.
Alcatraz must have been like Ellis Island for these guys. They yearned to breathe free and breathe gay and they came and they were and they did. I saw them in the streets when they arrived, fresh-faced and not believing their good fortune. I saw them split off two by two and maybe sometimes more. I saw them holding hands and wearing brightly colored bandanas in their back pockets. I saw them smiling and laughing and kissing and excited and eating hamburgers and wearing nipple rings and leather vests and leather jeans and getting tans on their bare chests and bursting with a joy that was likely the first happiness they had felt in their difficult lives.
I’d walk by and they would sometimes pat me on the head and sometimes ask me what my name was and if I knew what that guy’s name was and if I would mind passing along a message to him.
I saw men dressed as cowboys and I saw great tall men dressed as empresses and I saw maybe more than I should have seen at that age, but I didn’t mind it because it wasn’t scary to me. I was safe in this city of grown-up boys who loved each other and loved life and seemed like they were living for the first time.
Can you imagine that? Living for the first time. What a lovely thing. But it didn’t last.
San Francisco seemed sunny then, and then the fog set in. In my memory, it looks like that. The sun bright and hot, reddening happy faces and hairy and hairless chests alike, and then suddenly without warning the cold and the dark and the wet fog came in.
With it came a mysterious illness, and the men, these gorgeous men looked different. Everything was dark. And then the darkness started to creep into these gods whom I had worshipped from afar. I saw them then a little sick, then a lot sick, and then with bruises and then on crutches and then very thin and then in wheelchairs and then looking like old men when I knew they were not old men and then I didn’t see them anymore.
The crushing blow. I didn’t see them anymore. The streets were empty. Storefronts closing. Bars with only one man in them, alone, sitting in the dark in the middle of the day, head down and crying.
AIDS has taken a lot from me. From us. It has taken so much. So very much. But what I forget, and shouldn’t, is what AIDS has given to me.
What AIDS gave me is something to fight against, and I learned, because of AIDS, we, my people, my tribe, the GLBT community learned how to organize, how to raise money, how to band together, how to be political, how to demand for our rights, how to write about our pain, how to march, how to approach, realize and finally attain equality.
I think that fighting this terrible plague, one that took so many of our lives and left our communities devastated, gave us strength. It is true what they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We are stronger now. We are better. We are a generation who has lost many of the generation just before us, and so because of that we are prepared to go to battle for them.
Maybe it’s the same in places where wars have been fought over a great many years, and so the children of the revolution come back to win and do win because we were born of the struggle and so that is all we know.
In the ’80s when I began my career as a comedian, I also began my career as an activist. I played countless AIDS benefits and saw eloquent speakers and learned that I was part of a community. My heart leapt at the sight of the dykes on bikes at every gay pride parade I attended and I dreamt of riding with them someday (I will soon, I know this to be true).
I attended the March on Washington and I spoke to an unfathomable sea of people. My people. I saw things were changing for the better, and that we learned how to change things for the better because we had been through so much.
Soon after, I started thinking that gay marriage would be a reality. I started thinking that equality would be a reality. When Gavin Newsom legalized gay marriage in San Francisco, there was a great shift in my consciousness, and I knew that a giant leap forward had happened. I put on a suffragette costume, big hat and all, and went to Sacramento to speak. I was so excited and many gay and lesbian couples were headed to San Francisco to get married inside city hall itself. Everyone was beaming with the kind of ecstatic joy I hadn’t seen since the ’70s, when I saw all those young men arrive in my city, before the disease, before AIDS.
I saw a hope and an excitement in my community that I thought had died with all those many, many, many people. Even though this triumph for marriage equality didn’t last in San Francisco, it was a tremendous first step. Then later, when gay marriage was reinstated in California, I was deputized as a marriage commissioner and was officially able to perform wedding ceremonies within the city hall of my beloved San Francisco.
I presided over two ceremonies, a gay couple and a lesbian couple, both pairs friends of mine. I stood at the bottom of the stairs in the great rotunda. The building in itself is historic, being not only the one where Gavin Newsom had legalized gay marriage in the first place, but also the place where the great martyr of our political movement, Harvey Milk, had been assassinated.
I read vows, asked my friends to repeat them, and I cried. We all cried. I married each couple and both times, I saw one look at the other, longtime partners, looking at each other with a deep love and a sweetness that I have not words to describe. It felt like, “Hey, babe. Our love is real. We are real.” This was not said, but if my heart could hear, that is what it heard.
This is what gay marriage is to me. It is that acknowledgment from the government, from society, from the world — that our love is real. That we are here and that we deserve this. We come from so much pain. We as the LGBT community have suffered for centuries, from what seems like the beginning of time. We continue this struggle in the face of hatred and disease and death. We lose our children to bullying and we have never found acceptance or equality in this world ever, but now it is starting to happen. We are starting to happen. It’s like we are coming into the San Francisco of the ’70s but this time there is nothing that will cut us down in our prime.
We are going to do this because we have lived through hell and we have survived. We are going to do this because our love is real and we are real and we deserve families. We deserve rights. We deserve life. This is what I learned from AIDS and this is the gift that AIDS has given us back for all it has taken.