Regarding U.S. Congressman Mark Foley’s disgraceful exit from politics I know a thing or two about, to quote The Wizard of Oz, “pay(ing) no attention to that man behind the curtain”.
Here’s the précis: Not only do I have a history of excessive alcohol use I accept more responsibility, certainly more than most AIDS activists might appreciate, for my infection with HIV in the late 1980s.
Throughout my early to mid-twenties, and the corresponding years of the 1980s, I defiantly came out of the closet of my sexuality but remained, without being aware of it, behind the curtain of excessive drug, most particularly alcohol, use. For a long time, rather than doing something about this presenting problem, I rationalized the behaviour by blaming everything from the pressure of growing up gay in an overwhelmingly heterosexist society, not helped by living – as I did at the time – somewhat of a double life in a small, conservative Ontario city, to the gay community’s over-abundance of bars as social meeting places.
“You’d drink, too, if you lived in St. Catharines!” is something I can accurately quote myself exclaiming more than once.
So it was, then, that in 1988 my radio job there was “downsized” and – thanks to the good work of my colleagues at NABET – I came to Toronto with a generous severance package. Still alternately crying or raging in my beer I led a pitiful existence for about six months, drinking in some of the city’s seedier gay bars and then crashing for the night in various draft-ventilated bath-houses.
Another memorable self-quote, in this context, was “If anyone deserves AIDS I do!” The absurd premise of this view, that AIDS is deserved, coupled with the self-loathing connection that my behaviour was all the more deserving of it, I have long since dismissed as self-absorbed one-downmanship.
After I reined in the drinking I got tested for HIV in 1989 and, as my sick death-wish (which I would outwardly deny harbouring) would have it, I was positive. However by this time I had already begun to pull my head out of my ass, in terms of my sexuality and the self-destructive behaviour, and was involved with various threads of AIDS activism. I hung around protests staged by “AIDS Action Now!”, wrote advocacy letters to governments, and quite simply just continued to agitate in any number of ways. With my prognosis soon quite poor – this was well before current treatments – I left my newfound work in the hospitality industry and, while preparing to die myself, helped out on home care teams of a few friends who were considerably sicker. I have some profoundly gratifying memories of these experiences. Anyone who has been privileged to accompany the dying will know what I mean.
As I have posted elsewhere, I have a longstanding relationship with the United Church of Canada briefly interrupted, relatively speaking, with links to a fundamentalist church (my self-loathing was well-fed there!), then Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT), followed by a small faith community which split from it. In short, I have always found some measure of community among “seekers”, even when I was not being honest or affirming with myself.
My politics and spirituality have merged, especially since joining the congregation of Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church in 1999. Even among friends there who have different capital-P politics, although I’m sure they would stray no farther right than the Liberals, I feel an integration of my activism, my sexual orientation and my wide open, always questioning spirituality.
It’s been a journey through valleys and over hills, since I thought I had come out to myself twenty-five years ago in 1981, but it is a journey I seek to honour by being as honest as I can.
No longer feeling “deserving” of AIDS I take a more libertarian view of past (and present) behaviour, both sexual and drinking, and that – however misguided and however influenced – I accept my role in my circumstances, as much as possible sans self-judgment, and seek to live out my remaining years with as much honesty and integrity as I can.