The other day, I was talking to a client in the entertainment industry. He is a cisgender gay man, and recently someone told him that his perspective is no longer “fringe” enough, no longer “intersectional” enough — he somehow does not have the right combination of minority identities to now have a meaningful voice in media. He’s not “of the moment.”
It is good that we are now focused on uplifting voices that are Black, undocumented, trans, nonbinary, and from perspectives and identities that have long been pushed out and kept voiceless, and we must continue to do so. But I will not stand for that to turn into hostility against gay men. Gay men are so easily mocked, summarized, and parodied, even within their own queer community, that it sort of fits our history that we should now be considered somehow inadequate. Our experiences are complex and difficult, not simple. We are still being kicked out of our homes and subjected to ceaseless violence, only now we get to experience these things with more gay caricatures — I mean, characters — on TV.
We are still being abandoned. We are still dying. This post is about a gay man I couldn’t save, one who was like so many I know, like so many gay men that most gay men know. He couldn’t get clean, couldn’t stay away from meth, had no family, no support, few friends, and the few friends and lovers he had only aggravated his drug misuse and worsened his health. He was HIV-positive and unmedicated. In my hour of need, when I was skirting homelessness, he gave me a place to live — me, a stranger.
He was the check-in guy at my gym. I chatted with him almost every day. We talked about life, work, and people, and then, when I was panicked and didn’t know where I was going to live, I went to the gym and he asked me what was wrong. I told him, and that very day, he offered me his spare room in his apartment in Brooklyn.
I lived there for almost six months. I paid him rent, took care of his cats, cleaned his apartment, and we grew closer. I saw how severe his meth use was, though he tried to hide it. He had no friends, just guys who came over to fuck and get high. He had lost his lover of several years to overdose some years ago and had never really recovered — the same year he lost his mother to cancer. He was drowning in loss and isolation, and his only escape from pain was drugs.
I tried to help where I could without getting too personal and respecting when and where he drew boundaries in our talks. I was just his roommate, and I was there on his goodwill. One day, he walked into the kitchen shirtless — one of only a few times he did this — and I saw visible KS lesions across his chest, a telltale sign of AIDS. I later asked him about it and he admitted that he was HIV-positive and unmedicated. I spoke to him then as a brother, as he and I shared this strange disease. I myself went without meds for a dark two years. I told him, “Babe, we need to get you back on medication.”
“I know, I know,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to do it. I’ll get to it this week.” I moved out some months later, but I still saw him multiple times a week, whenever I went to the gym. Whenever I checked in, I asked about his cats, asked how he was doing.
He died last week.
He had no one. I wonder if he got worse after — because — I left. I don’t know what exactly killed him or how he went. No details were given on the gym’s Instagram post about his passing. But I didn’t need these details. I’ve lost others this way — gay men who couldn’t be reached by health experts, by the system, by their own kind, their own kin. And he is just one example of all the gay men out there who suffer and live this way, who are alone, who have pushed away many of their friends, who have no family, who need help and won’t or can’t ask for it. And they exist this way because they are exiled from the world in a very distinct way — because they participate in a culture rife with problems, because they live in a world that shames and admonishes them and caricatures them on television. It meant nothing to him that there was more gay representation on TV or that we won marriage equality. He was one of many we have lost to a world that hates and parodies us, simplifies our complex identities and loves into stereotypes that are so easily derided. Was he not “intersectional” enough? Was he not fringe enough to be heard? Was he not “of the moment”? He was just a gay man, just a drug abuser, just one like me.
I don’t think I’ll leave the world as he did because I’m lucky enough to have people, to have a successful moderation and risk-reduction strategy for my drug use that keeps it from teetering into misuse and abuse. I have had people when I needed them. I have been saved when I needed to be saved. He was simply not so lucky. And that breaks my heart in such a way that I can hardly express it. I am no more worthy or deserving of anyone’s help than he was. His death makes me furious at the culture and world we are forced to live in, a world that we have helped immensely and that so often abandons us. I don’t want to take space away from trans folks or Black folks or anyone who has shared with us the experience of being erased, and I agree that reckonings must happen for the long histories of racism, transphobia and abuse that minority communities have suffered.
But don’t forget about gay men, the ones who go to circuit parties and love brunch and seem to always be sassing and fucking and partying somewhere — the seemingly vapid, catty, Instagram-famous ones who, when you aren’t looking, break apart when they think about the family members that won’t speak to them. We are all lost children.
It is a great crime that nearly every gay man knows someone like this or has lost someone like this. We learn, from a young age, what the lost ones look like, how it feels to lose friends this way. We understand that no one can be saved, only loved, and that love is so often not enough to undo the damage the world has done to us. But loving is all we can do.
You can’t save anyone. You can only love them.
So well said… thank you for this.
Crying with you at this tragic loss, at the isolation and the cruelty of others. God help us!
I wonder how many of us think “this could have been me”? I certainly do. I am now a senior gay man, happily married for 46 years, live an upper middle class life, embrace a healthy lifestyle, practice yoga, meditation… Sometimes a door of opportunity may present itself to us and if we miss the chance to walk through, we miss that journey and take another one. This can happen once in a lifetime or it can happen regularly. Choosing which door to walk through can be a throw of the dice or it can be simply listening to our gut. You are an inspiring writer. In some ways you remind me of an old acquaintance, the writer Annie Dillard, who was able put into words the hard, raw, naked observations of living in this world with a unique and visionary perspective. I traveled with her and others to the Holy Land and ended up in a state mental hospital in Tel Aviv where I observed many people in utter agony dealing with their misfortunes. I painted, I danced, at times I slept on the floor, but that’s yet another survival story rife with experiential learning.
What beautiful writing; and what a tragic loss.