It stings to see wall-to-wall coverage of the coronavirus on television and then watch a show about the years when AIDS was ignored and information and treatment were scarce. Yes, the viruses are different. But one of those differences is that queer people, and other marginalized populations, were dying. It makes me furious that there was a time when a virus was killing thousands of people with barely a mention on the news, night after night. The extent and intent of that silence haunts me.
A haunting silence also pervades the new memoir “Gay Bar,” by the essayist Jeremy Atherton Lin. In it, he looks back, starting in 1992, at how gay bars shaped his life and how, as they close, the record of gay history is imperiled. During a recent phone call, we couldn’t really figure out why “It’s a Sin,” his book and other works about the early AIDS years, like Ruth Corker Burks’s memoir “All the Young Men,” seemed to turn up at once.
I asked him if he thought “Gay Bar” and “It’s a Sin” were in conversation as works of memory, survival and the shadow of AIDS.
“I think the loss of thousands and thousands of gay men before my arrival in the scene was unspoken but present in ways that were uncomfortable,” said Lin, 46. “It tears me up. I wanted those guys to be my big brothers.”
I like to think that a man from this missing generation would have been my gay mentor. He still could be, because obviously not all men from those years are dead. Of course, when I was 20, I wasn’t interested in the wisdom and history my gay elders had to share. I was too in thrall to the insouciance of youth, pursuits that “It’s a Sin” joyfully captures.
But now that I’m almost 50, I’m ashamed of my youthful vanity. “It’s a Sin” offers me a kind of televised atonement, driving home how my queer forebears in the ’80s were conscripted into a war. They weren’t all heroic, but they were heroes. Because what many queer people have now — accepting families, marriage, a daily pill to stave off AIDS — is what they bequeathed us.