In October 1987, at what has become known as “The Great March,” I held Mark’s face in my mind as I held Kenny’s hand—the first time I had held a man’s hand in public—as we walked together in the bright Washington sun. We were headed to the Mall, part of a long line of men—and women—marching, marching. I looked behind me and then in front. I had a brief thought for my military father. I was finally part of an army— not one he would have ever imagined, but an army filled with as much courage, as much resolve, and as much fierce determination as any army God or country had ever ordered into battle. And we were heading into battle.
As dozens of protesters shouted slurs at us from the sidewalk, we marched on. Homemade signs on neon poster board stuck out against the clearest of blue skies. Some bore scripture, but most employed original material written especially for the occasion—like the one that read, god’s punishment for fags is AIDS. I had never seen so many people, had never been in the crosshairs of so much rage and aggression. The anti-gay protesters were a virulent and hate-filled bunch, screaming filth and hurling abuse. I was amazed that people who claimed to be so God-fearing would behave in such a monstrous fashion toward complete strangers. If they could have hurled rocks and stoned us, they would have.
I kept my eyes away from them as much as possible and tried to gaze into the distance—a thousand-mile stare. I gripped Kenny’s hand as we continued toward the National Mall. Streams of people kept joining us, the crowd growing ever larger and more focused. We were quiet, somber, with hands and arms linked. Faces tear-stained, strained. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, gay, straight, male, female, old, young. We were the face of America. On the National Mall—the AIDS Memorial Quilt was being displayed for the first time.
The quiet of a crowd so massive turned the gathering on the Mall into a religious service of sorts. It would be difficult to bring together so many mourners and so much mourning without a sense of the spiritual touching the gatherers. Some mourners sat praying silently. Some told stories about the lives of their sons and brothers and boyfriends, each represented by a three- by six-foot panel of fabric—a patch about the size of a twin…the kind you might lie on, side by side with a childhood friend. The kind you might dream on while listening to music that told you there was a world beyond your four walls. The kind you might sit on while deciding you were going to live your life with truth and openness and not give a damn about what anyone else thought.
I stopped being afraid. I knew that no matter what, I had this army on my side. I felt an unbreakable strength radiating from them. I felt their anger and their passion, and it lifted me, validated me, and comforted me. For the first time in my life, I truly felt no shame at being a gay man.
It would take years and millions of deaths before we would finally, as a nation and as a world, be able to look AIDS straight in the eye and say, “We can defeat you.” That was a long way off that day and seemed like an impossible future. The fight along the way was steeper than Everest, longer than the horizon. There would still be hate and still be fear. But this moment of national mourning began something that couldn’t be stopped. Gay people came of age and would no longer hide in the shadows.
I wonder sometimes if the horror of what happened to gay men helped humanize us in some perverse way: people finally saw us as being just like themselves. Loving. Faithful. Mortal. We had families and partners and children; we had lovers and friends and colleagues. We were everywhere, and we were just like them. And we were dying. There could be no more silence among the living and no more living among the shadows. We deserved better, I thought, looking around. We deserved to love. We deserved to be happy. We deserved to live.
I decided I would never hide from anything again.