A Letter to John Kelly
By Patrick Hurley
Dear Mr. Kelly,
This is in response to your solo performance art piece titled, Time No Line that I just saw at Redcat in Los Angeles.
More specifically, it’s a response to a specific moment in that show that struck me especially hard. When you spoke about the AIDS crisis and you said that an entire generation of artists, mentors, storytellers, leaders, and lovers would have been in that room if they weren’t decimated. When you explained that the cross-generational conversation didn’t get to happen for us, I realized for the first time, in my more than forty years, that I am an orphan of sorts. That all the gay men of my generation, the ones who came up, as children in the midst of the Pandemic. The plague. We were the ones standing on the other side of a void, hands reached out, hopes held in the thinnest of balance between identity and mortality. We could not equivocate, one directly caused the other. And so panic and fear settled into the marrow of our collective body. And our hands were never met by the mentors, the leaders, the ones who could teach us how to love, to behave, to rebel. We were alone.
The first thing I learned about gay men, when I was in, I think third grade, this would be in 1985, was they were to be avoided. “Don’t let them touch you, don’t use the same bathroom, avoid them. You could die if they spit on you” This set off so many alarms in me. I didn’t understand yet, fully, who I was, but I knew the things I kept seeing on the news, the words I kept seeing on magazines, out of the mouths of my peers, I knew those words described me, and I knew my identity was fatal. And it’s impossible to explain to somebody, outside of this, the genuine terror and diminishment it caused.
Suicide became the option that made the most sense in my teen years, when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the community on both coasts. When I was fifteen I was in a play with a man named Doug, a man who was probably thirty years old, he was the first person I ever met with HIV. I was fifteen, so he was twice my age, and unapologetically queer. By which, I mean he spoke about who he was, and what he wanted, and who he saw as desirable in mixed company, without a care. And he responded to me in a way that made me very uncomfortable. I knew he knew. He looked at me and spoke to me differently than other men. There was a gentleness and familiarity that I hadn’t felt before. He tried to reach me. But his diagnosis and his larger-than-life personality scared the shit out of me. So I avoided him at all costs. Fearing his innocent touch. Even a hug was too much. I would panic at the thought of being alone in a room with him, and I wouldn’t engage. This was 1992, not nearly the end of HIV being a death sentence for more than not. Looking back, I wish so much I could talk to him now. As that closeted fifteen-year old me that was terrified and kind of attracted to him. I still remember his laugh, the way he gestured. And I was fifteen, so…I remember what he looked like in tight jeans. But for the absence of awareness and anyone in my life able to help educate me about the world I was actually from, I saw him as only a threat and as a reminder that we might all just disappear from this world for being ourselves. And maybe I should take myself out of the world before I die a terrible death because I want to discover my own sexuality someday. I do wonder and hope that Doug is still out there somewhere. Still gloriously being himself.
I asked for help when I became actually suicidal. But I wouldn’t say why. I was sixteen and I knew I wasn’t going to ever be myself. I was going to hide forever. So I allowed doctors to diagnose me with depression, and anxiety and my parents were terrified that I was going to kill myself so they allowed the doctors to put me on antidepressants and mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety pills, all to make the dread go away. Of course it didn’t. It grew and grew, until it became the thing that I couldn’t live with anymore. And thus, the closet was abandoned and the search to alleviate dread through identity began. But your words brought to light so much more of why I felt so isolated.
I had no mentors.
I had no leaders.
I had no teachers.
I wasn’t going to meet the men that would help me navigate this new world, because there weren’t enough of them left. I saw men fighting to live, and men loving other men that were dead or dying and the gay community was attending to funerals and grief. The kind of grief that shapes a generation indelibly. Unendurably. And our adhesiveness was slowly tearing itself apart. Like a bandage on an old wound. And now we’re led by the youth! We finally have a generation born after the time of panic. Of fear. And there’s a kind of cultural adolescence happening. Which is a constant reminder: we lost too many. And those who came later hold less and less respect for the generation that lost so much. It’s an irony that really sucks.
The strength of men like you. Of survivors of a kind of holocaust, are now the men that motivate me. That challenge me. And so, I guess, why I’m writing this, what I hope to accomplish is to say thank you. I reached my hand out thirty years ago, hoping there was someone that could take it and show me who I was. And now I know that someone has. I feel, even indirectly, I’m part of the reason you do what you do. And this is why I too want to do it too. I want to reach the next and the next and the next, because we have so many stories. We have so much history that must be excavated, preserved and shared. And it’s not just the next generation that needs it. It’s every one alive. The gap caused by AIDS is so vast and so significant, it’s as if we have to start over wherever we are, and find the stories. And tell of the men of the women, of everyone that we lost. And of stories that we lost. I was feeling unsure. I was feeling unmotivated. Navigating the community now can seem daunting and pointless. But your words resonate. We are without a parent. Without the wisdom of our elders. But we can start from here. And you give me hope. Harvey Milk was right, that’s what you gotta do.
So go forth, comrade!
I’m right behind you.
Thank you again.
Love and peace,