Lee would have been 52 years old now, about four years younger than me. But he only lived to 28, one of hundreds of thousands of beautiful gay men wiped out in America between 1981 and 1996.
He was the first person I ever knew who had AIDS. I only learned about it a few days before he died, when a co-worker came up to me and said, ‘Bob, Lee is dying.’ Even though Lee was a very private person, we all had guessed he was gay. We had met his boyfriend James, a pretty blond boy who was only about 22 years old. James died about a year after Lee.
We tried to visit Lee in the hospital, but he wasn’t conscious while we were there. His family had gathered, learning at the same time not only that their son was gay, but that he was dying from this terrible, mysterious disease. A few days later, Lee was gone.
For anyone who didn’t live through that epidemic, there’s no way to describe the feelings of hopelessness and terror that engulfed the gay male community. It seemed liked everyone you knew was getting AIDS, and dying at incredible speed. And there was nothing that could be done, no drugs that could stop the progression of the disease for more than a brief time.
The story of how the gay community rallied around the dying and cared for them, of how lesbians took up the challenge and cared for their gay brothers, and finally how the queer community formed ACT-UP and demanded the government do something to stop this plague, is told in a great documentary called ‘We Were Here.’ It’s important to watch because it seems like we’ve all moved on from that time. Since the invention of the drug cocktail in 1996, AIDS has become a manageable disease like diabetes instead of the death sentence it once was. Most young gay men today have never known someone who died of AIDS.
We can’t forget people like Lee who were taken from us not only by a virus, but by an uncaring government and by indifference bred by bigotry. It’s part of our history, and it must be told.