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
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.
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.