July 10, 2015

From Gay AIDS to Gay Marriage

I took this photo in October, 1996. For the last time, the entire AIDS Memorial Quilt spread across the vast Washington Mall. The man in the foreground is Frank Kameny, considered one of the most significant figures in the American gay rights movement. He also owned a house in the Palisades, my neighborhood in Washington, DC.

The quilt was a powerful visual reminder of the AIDS pandemic. More than 48,000 individual 3' x 6' panels -- most commemorating the life of someone who died of AIDS – – had been sewn together by friends, lovers, and family members.

In all the recent commentary on the remarkable increasing public acceptance of gay people, I've been surprised how seldom AIDS has been mentioned as a key factor in that dramatic turnaround.

Since the pandemic began in the early 1980s, the U.S. government statistics report that over 300,000 gays have died of AIDS.(The government report didn't call them gays but instead as MSM – – men who have sex with men.) Many of them were closeted, and their families and friends became aware of their sexual orientation for the first time. Several were very public figures. Here's one:

Before AIDS, the majority of gays didn't openly declare their sexual orientation. What the public saw usually was the stereotype of the effeminate gay on TV and in the movies. With AIDS, people learned that the shy, virile young man next door was gay, as was the Hollywood leading man Rock Hudson.

These revelations -- repeated so many times -- pushed forward the public acceptance of gays.

Let's end on a lighter note.

My Pal Dusty and Gay Marriage

Dusty (Tinsley Halter Cunningham) was easily the most unforgettable character I've known. In an earlier post, I wrote about the important part he played in my life, and in the lives of many others.

I've thought of him often lately. Dusty had six or seven "husbands." He identified with Elizabeth Taylor in this regard.

One of his riffs was to pretend he was the receptionist at a big law firm who would answer the phone with this: "Good morning. Hilton, Wilding, Todd, Fisher, Burton, Burton, Warner, and Fortensky."

Dusty died of AIDS in 1988 at age 44. He would have loved attending this 1993 event -- the dedication  of the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center as part of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, now Whitman-Walker Health.

Shown in this photo are then-mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly at left, and Elizabeth Taylor on the right. In the middle is Jim Graham, long-time executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic.
Dusty was president of Whitman-Walker's Board of Directors from 1984 to 1986, and Jim was executive director. This period marked the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and the two of them worked (and fought) together to transform the clinic into one of the nation's premier organizations fighting AIDS.

Dusty and Jim had a classic love-hate relationship from beginning to end.

During Dusty's final days -- in bed, and in a coma -- Jim paid a visit, held Dusty's hand, and said "I've always loved you Dusty, and I know you've always loved me."

At which point, Dusty opened his eyes and said: "Bullshit! I've always hated you and you've always hated me."

Dusty closed his eyes and drifted back into his coma.

That's just one of dozens of Dusty anecdotes.

R.I.P. Tinsley


Bob McMullin said...

I have to admit John that I don't aways read your blog, but I do always look to see what you are thinking about, so when I saw the words Dusty and marriage in the same context, I of course had to see what you were up to. Dusty was an important person in my life too, and I'm certain you told me about his shaking his death rattle (if I may be so crude) when it happened. Dusty was one of few who had my permission to be as mean as he needed to be.

I had and have no need for marriage myself, because so many of my closest friends did such a good job of confirming the institution's futility in it's current form. All states should be required to attach the qualifier "a cynical middle class bureaucratic arrangement that all may embrace in the interest of securing a catalog of benefits".

In recalling loves last, I remember when Dusty was there for me at a dark time in my past when I thoughtlessly had given my heart away to another who fell to AIDS: a brilliantly handsome and engaging man from California who shall remain nameless. When it was clear I was beyond redemption, this charming cad threw me over dinner at Morgan's with the explanation that I had hounded him so relentlessly he had no other choice. I had in fact silently waited for my sentence after he confirmed my role as the new husband by introducing me to one and all after months of one and all his AA meeting after a long, previously anonymous courtship.

Dusty was the only friend I had who knew how much I loved this guy and knew him well enough himself to earn my confidence. I cried such bitter tears that night at Dusty's. What had I done? How could this be happening to me? How could I go on living? And most of all, how could I redeem myself after carelessly pursuing this man when everyone knew and liked his current lover? I was woe and shame personified. Dusty held my hand, listened to my story and told me why I had to go on living and loving. He then promptly took the sorry bastard into his own bed. The perfect remedy for any jilted gay man with as much pride as I had and have. You may have told me told me of Dusty's action John. I can't remember. But I do remember that I never said a word to Dusty and never for one moment blamed him for his actions.

Here's the sauce. The lost paramour was introduced to me by Michael Hess and Steve Dahloff at a fantastic party at our place at the Wyoming. Perhaps just the sequel to "Philomena" that Hollywood has been looking for.

Those were the days my friend.

John Schappi said...

Hey Bob – – So great to hear from you! I was reminiscing about our days at St. John's yesterday when I had lunch with Brenda who I hadn't seen in years; she was part of our group at the 9 AM service. Bonnie and I keep talking about trying to get together; one of these days we will do it. I hope one of these days you can find your way back to DC.
Your story reminds me of what a tumultuous life we lead in those days. You and your humor helped me survive.