My mother had me late. Headed for 90, each birthday closer is indelible. I am the age where answering how old I am constantly requires subtraction. A poem of mine, to appear in a new Caribbean anthology, ends: “My mother has outlived heartbreak and cancer and / Like me, most of her friends”. Alzheimer’s has robbed her of the spirits of several more still alive, and infirmity of others’ visits.
Despite 35 years separating us, and the different significance of age for each of us, we both live as survivors.
Mine was the generation of 20-somethings barely started on our adult lives as gay men when the HIV epidemic began. Some of us take pride that we outwitted the virus, but for many, as my friend George Bellinger Jr. notes, that was just “dumb luck”. We’ve buried hundreds of loved ones. And often we are left profoundly alone, standing holding the camera, witnesses to a war-like carnage that lingers on. Being childless, distant from homophobic family, and damaged goods in a youth-obsessed gay culture makes things worse.
“Because half my generation is dead,” I usually pipe up when asked why I am single. “And who eh dead, badly wounded.”
“Most single men my age”, I continue joking, after inserting the rhetorical device “other than you and me”, “are single for a reason. And dating them becomes the process of discovering that reason.” Wounds from social and family scorn, from condemnation of uncontrollable feelings, which ought to be joyful, as sin, from hiding and denial, from romantic rejection and loneliness—plus ageing itself—manifest in a need for control, inability to trust, and difficulty being caring or vulnerable. My generation’s injuries are compounded by the sociology of oppression—groups treated with derision by others harm members of their own in an effort at self-protection.
“By the time they reach my age,” my playful narrative continues, “men capable of relationships are in them.” This, I further quip, is a call not to despair, but to change dating strategy—to “comfort the bereaved. The rebound is your friend.” Because one’s targets are men capable of relationships, as they move between them.
It’s also true that being the gay activist no one in the closet wants to be seen with and disdaining the materialism most with my education are expected to embrace also decrease my stocks. This column hasn’t got me dates, either. Trinbagonians embrace mediocrity, dancer Dave Williams often reminds us. We’re suspicious of anyone who shines, and refuse to do so ourselves for fear of similar treatment. But besides all that, the sheer numbers are overwhelming. It’s not just half my generation I’ve lost; it’s over half my friends. And, like my mother, that means fewer and fewer people to mourn and remember with.
For my generation of HIV survivors, there was no time to heal before the next death. So we simply learned to stuff the grief up somewhere, where it stayed, unmourned. There is resilience of some form in that. But now, it seeps out into my dreams—the only place I cry. Or shows up in a childlike inability to bear the slightest disappointment. A friend leaves me at the 3Canal lime and goes home. And I find myself standing alone imagining breaking the Guinness bottle in my hand, stabbing someone to death, then on the stand in court blaming Patos, Kamla and homophobia.
Perhaps it was the man I had met online earlier that week, who shared his HIV+ status, keloids and other vulnerabilities, but was revolted by my belly. I had fallen in love in two days. We were planning to meet. Then we turned on the webcams—to discover his sexual attractions were limited to the physique he struggles so painfully to achieve. His sharing wasn’t romantic intimacy, just appreciation of the safety I afforded him.
The capacity to write, to joke and to organize is what has kept me alive. Sometimes the way I pour my life into activism is unhealthy. But when people ask how I keep going in the face of the frustration and cynicism they experience at politicians’ abject cowardice about sexual diversity, my unhesitant answer is about my optimism. That the power of organization is being able to achieve things by working together that one could not alone. That small successes and incremental gains ignite me. It stuns me that youth, with so much less fear than my peers, who could not imagine things they take for granted, think of leaving Trinidad & Tobago instead of building this tiny, malleable place where, to me, strategic, coordinated action can achieve almost anything. So many expect change to be readymade and effortless.
But loneliness does persist, and so too the despair that others only partially share my sense of the possible, or the priority for making change. Family often feels challenging. I come home to people I joke are my dependents. But being in relationship to them, however troublesome and exhausting, is powerful.
I had decided the odds were I’d already had the three or four big affairs in my life, and anything else would be icing. But I’ve suddenly become important to someone the age I was when HIV hit, and I find myself mysteriously capable of loving and unafraid of heartbreak. Write about me, he urged, when I struggled with this week’s column. And grief seems to vanish.