Another World AIDS Day came and went last week, prompting discussion and assessment of the state of the disease in 2019 as well as the history of its devastation. For me, it prompted some long-needed musing.

In a recent discussion about the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s, I said to a straight person: “I can’t claim AIDS.” He seemed puzzled, so I tried to explain — and in doing so, realized I was doing myself and my generation of queer men a disservice.

What I meant at the time is that I came out after protease inhibitors were introduced, the drug cocktail that drastically slowed the disease’s progression in the late 1990s. I knew only a handful of gay men who died of AIDS complications, none of them well. In deference and respect to those queer folks who were in the middle of the devastation and lost sometimes hundreds of friends, I didn’t feel it was my place to claim any sort of connection to AIDS.

It took me a while to realize it, but that’s nonsense.

AIDS exploded into the public consciousness, promoting paranoia, fear, and suspicion of gay folks in the mid-1980s, at exactly the moment my teenage self realized he liked boys. Like so many queer people, my initial response to the realization of my gayness was one of despair and self-loathing, but because it happened concurrently with the explosion of AIDS cases, I also saw it — in my mind, quite indisputably — as a death sentence.

To be 13 years old at any time, for any person, is to live through a period of hormonal rushes and exciting but confusing new desires and developments. When I was 13, I became burdened with the dual thoughts that the thing I wanted most in the world would not only kill me but sentence my immortal soul to an eternity of torment.

AIDS kept me in the closet for an additional 15 years.

AIDS made me fear my own attractions and question my worth as well as the worth of potential friends, partners, or lovers.

AIDS destroyed any chance of my enjoying a normal or healthy sexual and romantic development, leaving me to more than a decade of anonymous or fleeting sexual encounters, making me feel dirty, and preventing me from accepting myself.

When I was 21 and in film school, I worked at a midsize law firm as a file clerk. At Christmas, the firm asked me to use my “skills” to shoot a funny holiday video to be shown at the firm’s Christmas party. I thought it would be fun to pass around a couple of video cameras for a week and let the staff and lawyers film themselves giving holiday greetings or singing carols. When I got the footage back and started editing it, I came across one lawyer who asked whose camera that was and why folks were passing it around. When someone offscreen mentioned it was mine, he laughed and said, “You better wash your hands after you’re done with it.”

Trauma bounces around a community, echoing down through the generations.

Tom Fitzgerald

More than 25 years later, that sentence still fills me with the most intense feelings of shame and loathing. The difference between me now and me then is that I know those feelings are nonsense and I can talk my way past them. My 21-year-old self, having spent years believing he was a pervert destined for disease and early death, simply couldn’t do that.

I have long since embraced who I am and no longer harbor thoughts of being a diseased pariah, but the loud barks of laughter that greeted that joke echo in my head decades later. My own coworkers, laughing about my imagined disease, my not-so-secret shame.

Trauma bounces around a community, echoing down through the generations. In revisiting that time and trying to explain my feelings about it, I realized that the AIDS crisis did not pass me by. It kept me stuck and fearful and full of self-hate for far too many years. And when I finally did come out and entered the gay community, I looked around and saw very few eligible mentors (they were all dead) and a whole bunch of men just as devastated and scared as I was.

I say all this not to place myself beside those intensely brave men and women who fought and marched and grieved and died at the height of the crisis. They were warriors, saints, and heroes. Their struggles, sacrifices, and losses deserve to be forever remembered.

But I say this to note that even on the sidelines of the crisis, countless queer people sat in fear, in the dark, wishing they could be anything but what they were, fearful that their prayers would be answered with death.

AIDS affected more than the dying. It stalled the living too.

Tom Fitzgerald is the coauthor of the forthcoming book “Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life.”


Read more stories of changed minds

If you’d like to write about your own change of mind or heart, email opinion@inquirer.com.