Very grateful for a new review in Arts & Understanding, a magazine devoted to HIV/AIDS, on Songs for the New Depression. The review (found on page 48) notes “the laughs make the book deceptively breezy. SONGS shines with psychological truth and historical accuracy.” Love it when folks “get it!”
Posted the evening of the Golden Globes:
I had one of those weird “a-ha” moments just now, when, while cleaning, a wonderful memory returned. One of the best nights of my life, EVER, happened in February 1993. I have been a fan of Stephen Sondheim as long as I can remember, so when I heard they were doing a one-night only, 20th anniversary original cast reunion performance of COMPANY at the Long Beach Terrace Theater, I immediately bought two tickets. My good friend at the time, Cheryl Dolins, was also a Sondheim fan, and we couldn’t wait to go.
Another friend, Gary Kalkin, called just after we’d bought the tickets, and invited me to the Golden Globes after-party; I was crushed at the conflict. He said to stop by afterward, if we could, and at least say hello.
Cheryl and I loved COMPANY, and I was amazed, watching Dean Jones perform “Being Alive”, at how pitch perfect and emotionally charged his performance was, 20 years later. The entire cast was phenomenal, and goes down in history as my favorite night ever in a theater, bar none.
Exhilarated, Cheryl and I rushed back to LA. Walking up the red carpet at the Beverly Hilton, there were a few photographers, trying to figure out if we were “someones” and, to us, we felt we were. When we got to the check in desk, the woman apologized, saying the party was just about over, but if we wanted to still go in for a quick drink, we could. Dejected to have gotten there so late, we still went it, looking for Gary. There were only about 12 people in the entire room. Aside from Gary, there was Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Al Pacino, and Rodney Dangerfield. Cheryl and I were completely beside ourselves, hovering with the others around the few platters of food left, but kept acting as if hanging out with this crowd was an everyday occurrence.
Cheryl and I have sadly lost touch, and Gary died of AIDS just a year or so later.
I hadn’t thought of this in years, but just did. That was exactly 20 years ago. Thank you, brain cells, for reminding me…
Just a few of the brilliant lyrics…
Up on the walls–
“With love” filling the days,
“With love” seventy ways,
“To Bobby with love”
From all those good and crazy people, my friends!
Those good and crazy people, my married friends!
And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
That’s what it’s really about,
I’m so thankful to GSHRadio’s Rainbow Hour for including me on yesterday’s show, in honor of World AIDS Day. What fun, to follow the hysterical “America’s #1 Tupperware salesgal” Dixie Longate! The hosts, Victor, Otto, Gregory, Steve, and I chat about HIV/AIDS, my novel, as well as my piece on Huffington Post, “Please Defriend Me,” which has had almost 130,000 facebook likes.
My section starts at 48:28!
Thank you all!
On March 5, 1995, the day I turned 30, I admitted my then-partner Shane Sawick into the hospital. He would not come out alive, dying just two weeks later, on March 22. While AIDS was the war he battled, he was ultimately done in by a skirmish with PML (Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy), a rare but usually fatal disease, which quickly took away Shane’s ability to speak, move, or even blink at will, though his brain continued to think, and process, and feel. It was devastating to watch a loved one undergo such a debilitating experience, and yet that act, of being both lover and caregiver, thoroughly transformed me as a human being. Indeed, I would not be the husband, father, writer, or person that I am were it not for that period of crisis during which my partner and friends died. As we head towards World AIDS Day, I find it perplexing that few seem willing to embrace, or even mention, the epidemic which so greatly impacted and altered the LGBT community. What is it about that era that frightens us so?
The easy answer might be that disease and death make people uncomfortable, which, to some degree, is understandable. Prior to Shane’s death, my best friend of eight years and I were inseparable (I’ll call him Pete.) At the time, I couldn’t have imagined a better friend. Pete made me laugh, kept me company, and ushered me through my West Hollywood “coming out.” Once Shane got sick, however, Pete disappeared. He never called, or came to visit us in the hospital, despite knowing that I was there 24/7. Whenever queried by friends as to his absence, Pete would say, “Oh, you know–me and hospitals. I just don’t like the idea of sickness.”
It wasn’t until the day of Shane’s memorial that I next saw Pete. He came up, noting “Great service!,” before the next words came out of his mouth: “Wanna hit Happy Hour later?” Needless to say, I chose to end that friendship, as well as others in which people could not grasp the emotional magnitude of what had happened to me, and others like me. The depth of my experiences caused a change within, which required a new support system willing and able to tackle the “hard stuff,” no matter how unpleasant.
For some, the era of losing friends and loved ones has been difficult to revisit, due to the emotional toll taken. Many have gone to great lengths to separate themselves from the pain, moving from the most-hit urban centers to smaller, more rural towns. Others have gone into emotional hiding, losing themselves in drug or drink, or in simply shutting down, so as not to feel the ache of such loss. And some have, by necessity, focused on rebuilding their broken circle of friends.
New causes, such as marriage equality, have replaced AIDS as our community’s priority, and it is hard to argue that rallying for wedding cake isn’t more fun that protesting for HIV drugs. Still, we should not have to choose between the two.
These days, activism for many means little more than clicking “like” on a Facebook post. While thousands stepped into the streets in the aftermath of Prop 8, we’ve not seen anything on that scale for HIV/AIDS in years. At what point did we become complacent? Is having a drug that makes the disease “manageable” really all we want? What happened to a cure–or a vaccine?
Today, people still die from AIDS. While drug advancements have substantially decreased that number, it has also created the false-belief that contracting the disease is essentially meaningless. To some, taking one pill a day is an easy trade-off to having to wear condoms.
Most disturbing, however, is the sheer number to whom AIDS just doesn’t matter, having relegated it to a page in history. When I mention having lost a partner or friends, I’m most often met with a blank stare or a cursory nod, with no real emotional acknowledgement of what that time meant, and continues to mean.
During the AIDS crisis, the LGBT community rose to the occasion, stepping in to take care of our own when the government, pharmaceutical companies, and other organizations couldn’t–or wouldn’t. LGBT people exhibited incredible bravery, tackling huge monoliths with acts of daring creativity and passion. Were it not for our take-no-prisoners approach, we would not have the HIV drugs we do today.
The crisis temporarily brought together both genders, as women stepped into vacant leadership roles and helped those stricken by acting as caregivers. Today, that gender divide has returned, with little reciprocity from gay men for the causes dear to lesbians, such as breast or cervical cancer. In many ways, we’ve gone back to being strangers, with a debt left unpaid.
Other communities, devastated by tragedy, have managed to turn such markers into rallying cries, and the LGBT community must find a way to do the same with AIDS. Just as the Jewish people dealt with the Holocaust, and the African American community responded to slavery and the civil rights struggle, so too must our community find a way to embrace that era, fully honoring both those we lost and what we gained.
For we did gain much. We learned that, far from being the weak and passive individuals many of us had been stereotyped, we actually had strength, passion, and guts, and we fully demonstrated that to the world. We took on “the powers that be” and created real, tangible change. We literally bloodied ourselves for the cause, and yet today, speaking of AIDS feels almost taboo.
Does that have anything to do with the disease being sexually transmitted? Having worked so hard to combat the myth that being gay is to be “sick,” did the emergence of a sexually transmitted disease take us back to a place of shame? Does that shame still linger?
To be clear, I am not remotely nostalgic for the days of the AIDS crisis. I lost too many, and it hurt too much. But at the same time, I’m thankful that I was able to play a part in helping to educate others about HIV, through my work at AIDS Project Los Angeles. I’m grateful to my dear friends who allowed me to be with them during their final days. I’m profoundly changed, for the better, for having ushered my partner Shane to his death. And I’m forever in awe of the efforts our community took to respond to the crisis in unimaginably creative and lasting, impactful ways.
I just wished others cared as well.
Kergan Edwards-Stout’s debut novel, Songs for the New Depression, was loosely inspired by his partner, Shane Sawick, and his experiences during the AIDS crisis. It won the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the LGBTQ category, and was shortlisted for the Independent Literary Awards in the same category.
As we note the 30-year mark in the ongoing battle against HIV/AIDS, it seemed an appropriate time to publish this short story. I dedicate this to all of my friends, gone, but not forgotten, as well as those still fighting.
Jeffrey gazed up at the ceiling and, again, he began to count. It didn’t matter that he’d counted them before, or that he knew the number of holes by heart — 3,016. It also didn’t matter that he always counted the same square, never changing. The number of holes was constant; as constant as his mother sitting numbly in her chair, stumbling through her crossword. What mattered most to Jeffrey was that he knew it. And since he knew it, it could never be taken away.
He sighed, though no one heard it, and thought of Kevin. Blond, handsome, studly Kevin. How had everything gone so wrong? Jeffrey’s mind raced over the details of their relationship, sifting through the rubble for clues. The beginning, middle, end.
No one thing stood out as wrong or imminent or foreboding. When Jeffrey’s suspicions were confirmed and it did end, there were the expected rows, and tearful apologies, and scenes in restaurants. But no one could have foreseen the agonizing pain that would come to Jeffrey. He’d gotten through it, eventually, and now Jeffrey was alone. Sadly alone.
He filled his time well, though. Going through his Rolodex and renewing friendships. Making dinner plans, and festive theatre outings, and endless gym workouts–anything to stay away from that apartment. The reminders. The memories. (more…)
Without a doubt, the most pivotal moment of my life was meeting and the time I spent loving Shane Michael Sawick. Quite simply, without having been lover, partner, and caregiver to him, I wouldn’t be the human, writer, partner, and father that I am today. I am forever grateful to all that he opened me up to, both in terms of new lessons learned, and to the more fully authentic emotional connection I have with myself and with others.
To help honor and keep his memory alive, today I launched a special Tribute section to him on this site. It includes a biography, photo gallery, Shane in his own words, as well as essays I wrote around the time of his illness and death which were inspired by him (Different?, Who Am I Now?, and A Year of Goodbyes). Most importantly, there is also a page designated for you — whether you knew Shane or not — where you can share your memories, stories, or thoughts.
As fully as I knew him, I was only with him for two years. Many of you knew him far longer. I’m looking for your stories, your memories, your photos…
Let’s add to this, celebrate, and share with others, the extraordinary life of Shane Michael Sawick. Taken from us all, far too soon…