Despite the Fear

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| This is the 99th story of Our Life Logs |


I’m a native New Yorker of the Upper East Side, born in January of 1956. My parents gave me a lot of freedom, and I took advantage of that. New York City was full of possibilities for a young man looking for himself. I could go into the city and be whoever I wanted to be. I could dabble in the interests I had, and no one had to know.

I went to school on second street, which required a 25-minute trip on the subway. After school, I’d often take the long way home. I chose to hit all the popular tearoom spots, which were public restrooms used for quick, intimate encounters with other men. At first, it was just something to do, but it quickly turned into a lifestyle as I got more comfortable with what I wanted. Every now and then, I’d get caught by the authorities, who threatened to take me to my dad who worked around the corner. I did the crying thing, tearfully insisting that it would never happen again. Finally, they would let me go. I’d then go home, put my books down, change my clothes, and do it all over again. I was insatiable.

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When I was 17, my family and I moved to Jersey, but I continued going into the city. I’d frequent places like The Meat Rack, Mineshaft, and The Anvil to find gratification. During this time, I felt like I was accepting that I was gay, but really, I was just beginning to understand what it all meant. I would still go home and pretend I was straight. I think I was afraid of being outed before I could out myself. I even took a girl to the prom, though I dropped her off as soon as I could and immediately went back into the city.

I like to think that I came out in the early 70s, but that wasn’t really the case. I think I realized this after I grew closer with my dear friend, Michael. We first met in the city and from the moment we saw each other, we knew we were both in trouble. We’d go out together to party all night, then we’d go back to his place. He had this big disco ball and sometimes the party didn’t stop when we got there.

• • •

One day, Michael saw me out on the street and came running up to me in excitement. I was looking fearfully over my shoulder as he gave me a hug and kiss. He noticed my glance and became very serious. He said, “If you ever do that again, I don’t know if we can be friends.”

I was confused and said, “What are you talking about?”

He said, “You’re totally disavowing my love and affection for you. You’re more concerned about what people are going to think about two men embracing than you are willing to accept my love.”

Hearing that from him caught me off guard. Here I thought I was this out and proud gay man, but the closet door hadn’t been fully opened. Michael later ended up dying from substance abuse, and I still miss him dearly. I’ll never forget what Michael helped me discover that day. Since then, I’ve never done that to another man ever again. I always make them feel validated.

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When I was around 20 years old, I lived with my dad in an apartment on 60th street. During this time, my drinking escalated, and I partied nonstop. I think I was afraid and unsure of myself. I even had another doubtful moment about my sexuality. One night I went to a bar and saw the boy behind the counter. He was wearing pink latex gloves that stretched all the way to his elbows. As I stared he asked me, “Can I help you, honey?’ I freaked out and got irrationally angry. I ran from the bar, yelling, “I’m not like you!”

Living two lives was weighing down on me, and I knew that I couldn’t hide anymore. I knew my dad was getting tired of it. I couldn’t help with rent because I spent all my money on partying, so my dad gave up the apartment. I figured that wherever he went, he wasn’t going to want me there, so I decided to join the Navy.

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I got stationed in Virginia and often went to the commissary where there was a well-known tearoom. One day, 36 men, both seamen and admirals, got busted. They said I could stay if I promised to never do it again. I couldn’t promise that. They were going to give me a discharge that was less than honorable, which didn’t settle well. I wrote a letter to President Carter swearing that I wasn’t gay when I got on that boat. It was when they had me showering with these “nubile young men” that these feelings began to form. It was a complete lie, but it got me the honorable discharge.

I finally came out to my mom. She said she kind of knew all along, and that didn’t mean she stopped loving me. It was a relief to know she accepted me, that I could maybe stop living a double life. Though at the end, she added, “But don’t tell your father.” So, I never did.

I left the Navy and lived in New Jersey where I met a new guy. Soon after getting together, I moved with him to Denver. In 1978, while I was in Denver, my dad had a heart attack. I didn’t hesitate to travel back to be there for him. I was able to hold his hand as he took his last breath. Even on his death bed, I didn’t tell my father that I was gay. I feel that he always knew it in his heart, but we never had that conversation.

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I was planning to stay in the city after my dad’s death, but I ended up going back to Denver only to find that my boyfriend was having an orgy in our living room. That essentially ended our relationship, and that night I went to a bar to soothe my heart. After hearing my story, the bartender let me crash on his couch.

The next morning, I woke up as the bartender’s roommate made a pot of coffee in the kitchen. As I was still trying to shake off the morning grogginess, another guy walked into the apartment. He was god-like. He had a leather bomber jacket, ball cap, red flannel shirt, 501s, growing a goatee, and was perfectly sculpted. As I watched him sip his coffee, I knew I wanted him. He introduced himself as the bartender’s friend David, and I said something along the lines of, “You’re going to be mine before the night is through.” Six months later, we were living together and in love.

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Some of my favorite and most vivid memories are of my times with David. I remember once after a party, we went to a nearby park on a snowy night and spun each other around in the playground’s saucer. It was romantic and beautiful to look up at the sky and be content with just being around him.

One day, I broke into the bathroom to see him with a needle in his arm. I caught him experimenting with drugs and I could see the embarrassment on his face. But then, I surprised him by asking if he could show me. He was reluctant, but I insisted, “I’m 22 and can take responsibility for my actions,” so he agreed. He only had to show me once before I was hooked. This was my story for the next 30 years off and on. I couldn’t keep the needle out of my arm. I’d become an addict.

My drug addiction took a darker turn as I started shooting crystal meth. There was no easy way to exchange syringes, so I was sharing needles most of the time. David had come home one day dosed up on angel dust and was freaking out. I held him until he calmed down, but I had a bad feeling that it was the beginning of the end for us. It broke my heart. Eventually, we let each other go, even though it hurt. David was the only man I was ever in love with, and I’ll never forget those times we had.

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Then AIDS hit, and everyone’s life changed. I moved back to New York and stayed with two friends who suggested that I get tested for HIV. It was something many of us were starting to do. I went to a doctor in Manhattan on my 30th birthday in 1986. As I walked out of that office, I knew my life was never going to be the same. I had tested HIV positive and the doctor had said I’d probably only have five years to live. I refused to come to terms with my mortality, so I continued partying to try to forget about it.

Many of my friends started getting sick. My good friend John was forced to retire because of his health. At the time, I was so self-centered. I hated seeing him slowly shrivel up because it reminded me that wouldn’t be able to outrun HIV forever. How did things get so dark so quickly? John and I talked about HDT, a drug that is used to slow down the production of HIV. It was one of the most heart-wrenching conversations we ever had. I kept avoiding visits with him. John fought until he couldn’t fight anymore. He died in 1988. His death destroyed me because I felt that I let him down as a friend. That guilt followed me for years.

After John’s death, I visited David in San Diego. I heard he wasn’t doing well and wanted to tell him about my diagnosis. When I knocked on the door his partner answered, and I stepped in the apartment. Immediately, I gagged at the smell. The whole place was in decay. But then, so was David. His frail body was dripping sweat as he talked to me about how he’d gotten bad drugs. For the first time after John’s death, I no longer wanted to shake off the blame. “David,” I said, “we talked about this. We knew what we were doing and made the choice together.” Eventually I left his place. I was saddened by the image I’d witnessed of my first love but took comfort that he had someone to care for him.

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By 2008, I had officially gotten clean. With my newfound victory, I searched for places where I could help. I began getting involved in AIDSWatch, an organization that goes to Washington to lobby on behalf of people with HIV to get better opportunities for healthcare, housing, and more. I was impressed by the selflessness of these people, so I volunteered occasionally.

Later that year, my body began to ache, and I had developed a growth near my rectum. I knew something was physically wrong, but it didn’t stop my partying until a doctor from a nearby clinic confirmed my fear. It wasn’t the HIV, because they had been giving me medicine to keep it under control. But, they didn’t know what else it could be. I knew then that I needed to stop my chaotic lifestyle.

I had thought maybe I had warts or herpes, but as the lump continued to grow, I connected with a center in Jersey that quickly found the source of my problem. I had stage II anal cancer. I was shocked.

• • •

The doctor said he was going to have to cut me open and likely perform a colostomy, a surgery to make a new passage for colon functions. I told him I would do anything to avoid that. They allowed me to go through chemotherapy and radiation, but the cancer hadn’t gone away. When I regained my strength, the doctor made plans to cut me open again. They tested me once more before the procedure. As the doctors looked at my charts, I knew something wasn’t as planned. I was right. The doctors came with wide eyes and baffling news. The cancer had disappeared—completely.

For the next few months, I stayed in the hospital because I had been so sick and had to attend physical therapy to heal some wounded muscles. It was during this time that I received more news from my doctor. While I was cancer-free, I would no longer be able to perform in any intimate encounters. I was devastated. All my life, I had taken such pride in my sexuality. That part of me was a source of confidence and identity, and now it was being ripped away. I couldn’t cope, and I fell back to old behaviors. I thought I needed the drugs to help me cope.

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In 2012, after years of self-loathing and seeking comfort in drugs, a friend of mine recommended that I attend a workshop on the potential of human identity and sexuality. Though nervous at first, I went. It changed my life. Through intense therapeutic sessions where my boundaries and limits were expanded. I answered questions like, “Who inspired you?” “What is your relationship with your parents like?” and “What was the most traumatic experience in your life?” For the first time, I was open. I was honest about the sexual abuse from my brother and my cousin. I talked about my broken identity. I talked about the painful memories of old friends who were taken by AIDS, and I dove into the terror and pain of being diagnosed with both cancer and HIV.

Finally, it hit me. I survived that trauma. I was still here. I realized that I was one strong “son-of-a-bitch.”

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Taken post-cancer.

• • •

I didn’t become a daily activist until about 2012. I saw the movie United in Anger: The History of ACT UP, and I was in awe. ACT UP is an advocacy group that works to impact the lives of people living with HIV/AIDs by helping with medical research and treatments to ultimately bring an end to the disease. I came to find that the organization was still around. I went to a meeting and found a niche of people that had been involved in activism for the community all the way back when I was the one in need. While sitting in a meeting, I realized that it wasn’t due to luck or coincidence that I was still alive. The doctors told me I had five years, but I’ve been HIV positive for 31 years now. People like the members of ACT UP are the reason I’m still alive. They put in the work, lobbied to Congress, collected funding, promoted clinical trials, and backed HIV research, all so there could be a cure.

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I knew from that first meeting that this was where I belonged. I was meant to be a voice for the community. After all my years of running, I now feel like I can speak up for my friends who were taken by the epidemic. There was no hope in 1986, but it’s thanks to those devoted to the cause that there’s hope today.

I encourage those still in the closet to come out. When you’re in the closet, you constantly look over your shoulder as if someone will out you. Once you choose to come out, you take the power of your own identity in your own hands. And most importantly, if you are living with HIV, believe that it is not a moral decision to be affected, it’s a virus. And as long as we pull together, we can put an end to this plague. There’s hope to live happily ever after, despite the fear you have now.

Section Break

This is the story of Ed Barron

Ed, 62, currently lives in New Jersey where he works as an activist to improve the lives of people living with HIV/AIDs. He was discharged from the Navy for being gay, was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, endured drug addiction for 30 years, lost friends to substance abuse and AIDS, beat cancer, and has survived it all to tell his amazing story. He is involved with the ACT UP organization to help work toward ending AIDS. He also goes with AIDWatch once a year to Washington D.C. to lobby about people battling HIV/AIDS. Through things like The Body Electric Experience, Ed was able to find ways to live with HIV without the constant fear of dying. He has recently begun classes to become a certified peer recovery specialist. His goal is to become a peer navigator that works with people who are newly diagnosed or people who have fallen out of care. He wants to support people since he couldn’t provide as much support for his friends in the past. Ed is currently working with a team of people to produce a play production that showcases the life and struggles of those with HIV. Ed looks back on all that he has experienced and knows that helping the newly diagnosed today is what he’s meant to do.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on June 6, 2018.

Ed’s full story was captured by the VideoOut team, and can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTupksyeibw

Our Life Logs partnering with:

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| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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