Circa 3/1987- 9/1989
A normal heart breaks when humans are dying.
When I moved with my family from Piedmont North Carolina, where tobacco still hung in the open air storehouses next to a sunny but spookily quiet downtown, to the Upstate Erie-canal town of Pittsford, NY, I was in a state of culture shock.
I felt like a first-time bungee jumper. Rochester’s suburbs of ethnic division house every kind of people, but in their own neighborhoods. Pittsford was built around lush green spaces and quiet streets with private large homes that were solidly built. There were few if any African American kids in Pittsford Sutherland High School, very different from the diverse schools in the South. My middle and high-school friends in the South were largely comprised of African-American or mixed kids, or choir kids. I also had friends in the neighborhood. But when I moved up North, I was a skinny blonde kid who had a weird accent and walked strangely. Because I was a serious young artist, my walk really stood out. Plus I was a dreamer. I spent all day waiting for creative-time, down-time, dance-time.
I loved the theatre. A child performer, I was gearing up for a lifetime career as a triple-threat. I was lucky enough to have private voice lessons at the Eastman School of Music with a private teacher, Nancy Kennedy. There I sang in German, French and Italian. My accent wasn’t a problem. Controlling vibrato was another thing. I was in the State honors choir. I read plays for fun, and haunted the bookstores and cafes on Monroe Street. Of course I auditioned for drama clubs and show choir. I both loved and hated high school.
I got high and missed rehearsal for school plays periodically. I sang in the hallways. My Jimmy-Dean inspired rebellion, during which I excelled and rebelled simultaneously, really mixed people up. Hell, it mixed me up. I was mixed up. Young, broke, and just dumb enough to think I was an adult, because I was political.
disenchantment with American government had already hit me hard. In the late 1980’s, coming off Reagan’s pointed policies of “Trickle Down Economics” I was finishing up high school in a complicated town just South of Lake Ontario, best known for Xerox, Bausch and Lomb and Eastman Kodak; the town was hopping due to these three industries, which are for the most part, are obsolete today. I completed an internship with Rep. Louise Slaughter, who had me answer constituent correspondence.
I was smoking half-a-pack of Marlboro Reds a day so I could feel my cowboy machismo. I was also doing breathing exercises and dance training. I was dancing at four different studios so I could learn jazz from Joe, tap from Val, ballet from the Russians, and Modern from Garth Fagan’s Bucket Dance Theatre.
Drivers’ Education was in a trailer/out-building AKA as a “portable.” We grasped plastic simulated steering wheels then took to the streets. We went to teen clubs like the “747,” to city parks, AP classes; the nurse’s office. (There was one then.) The resident nurse could administer ibuprofen, water, an ice pack for menstrual cramps.
We students formed in our own cell groups, not so unlike “The Breakfast Club.” Football and Lacrosse were more popular than soccer, which was on the rise among passionate athletes. Along the forgotten Erie Canal, Upstate, in the secluded historic yet cushy high school setting, AIDS was a whispered threat.
I got a part in JCC’s Center Stage show and met Tom Gargana. I auditioned for that show because one of my dance teachers, Meg Kelley, choreographed it. (Meg was an enigmatic blonde with a classic chorus line frame who operated a modest studio. I had occasional private lessons with her because no one else would show up for jazz class. I was happy to bop and funk out with Meg to Aretha tunes, Chaka Kahn, and Bruce Springsteen’s Pink Cadillac.
Meg Kelley and Ron, the JCC’s resident Theatre Director, exchanged droll flirts, “I need something to suck on besides Ron,” Meg would sign plaintively, I am so dry.”
I was barely sixteen but I was home in the city; confident in the theatre. I never considered the language, the vibe, the scene, or the cast inappropriate. This was prior to helicopter parenting and “PC” movements. Think the feminist movement 1.5. We were real in a gritty way. I’d been to NYC. I knew my people.
The theatre and dressing room buzzed with veiled sexual tension and a welcoming camaraderie. With Tom’s hands in my hair, we fell into an innocent sweet enmeshment. “Ooooh you have such thick hair. You should let me fix it all the time for you.”
Tom, tall dark and gauntly handsome, was a dramatically expressive. My mother and I adored Tom. He split off from the salon he’d been at, “for years” and went into business for himself. We made double appointments with Tom, just kind of hanging out in his salon while he did one head of hair, then another. Tom’s salon was super chic, he had a carousel horse –with a pole–yes on a pole!- in the corner. Like many artistic entrepreneurs in the downtown “Business district” Tom probably lived in his salon space when he wasn’t staying with his boyfriend.
Tom was marvelous, so our time together was just my cup of tea. In the dressing room, in the theatre, in the dance studio, in Tom’s salon, I was home. Then I would go home. Code-switching became like camouflage.
With regards to AIDS, my dad and brother were silent, my mother and I were worried about our gay friends, and asked small questions. So when AIDS was breaking in the news, we worried a bit about our friend and stylist Tom, but, of course, we were largely, unaffected.
I decided to accept University of Michigan’s offer of undergraduate study in Music and Literature, Science and the Arts. In those days, an undergrad applied to both. There was grant money for students in those days!
I sang show tunes from the 1940’s like Oklahoma, and was a huge geek over Stephen Sondheim. Bob Fosse moves spun out of my body, a spider on mesclun, spinnerets grinding, making gossamer patterns in the air. In a parking lot, I tried to come out as Bi to my mother and it was as if I hadn’t spoken.
Alongside Shakespeare and Dance History readings, selected by the brilliant Professor Jessica Kimlat Fogel, we undergrads read Toni Morrison, Augusto Boal,and Larry Kramer.I had never heard of Larry Kramer or ACT-UP. But ACT-UP was forming because the AIDS crisis was decimating gay men.
Playwright, Screenwriter, Gay man, Civil Rights Organizer, hardscrabble Larry Kramer published, wrote The Normal Heart, and made waves in ACT UP. Even though I lived in the State of New York when I finished high school, it was miles away from the City, and it seemed, miles away from AIDS.
The HIV virus strain, known in small scientific communities since the 1940’s, but unknown to common citizens, was striking gay men, in metropolitan centers and both East and West coasts, hard, since 1981.
Can you remember, or imagine, the shock, the terror? A horrendous disease that seemed to follow few patterns known in epidemiology. It seemed to mutate and morph. The range of symptoms was baffling. People were in the throes of panic, fear and rage, and HIV became an excuse for gay people to be targeted. Also, at first, there was a great deal of ignorance about the cause of AIDS, the HIV, and how it was transmitted, so it became a bigger excuse to beat and murder gay people. Kissing was implicated. Water fountains were suspect.
The police and government were completely inert, and the outbreak was entirely marginalized. In the film United in Anger: A History of ACT-UP, footage from infomercials showed couples of all stripes playfully kissing in an effort to counteract hateful misinformation.
It is shocking what the mind forgets.
Fast forward to Ann Arbor MI, where I read “The Normal Heart” and cried. Under the gray skies, I trudged from class to rehearsal to class, and felt completely isolated. My roommate, who was my bestie and incidentally, lesbian, had an extreme mental health crisis, and emotionally flatlined. Day after day, I would “come home” from class and she was still entombed in the covers, at 2:00 pm. My bright and beautiful roomie was completely paralyzed, and the land-line phone bolted to the wall of our South Quad dormitory room rang. “She hasn’t been out of bed in two weeks,” I whispered to her mother.
Her family flew in, scooped her up, and whisked her away. She disappeared from my life. Was it the stock market crash? Politics? Internalized homophobia? Fear for her health? Just depression? I never knew.
During Sarah Schulman’s September visit to campus, and the screening of United in Anger, I started to remember my life during the early years chronicled in the film. In the darkness, I wondered about all my theatre friends, my musical theatre friends, my dance partners, mainly gay men. Many of whom I had lost touch with, either through business, lifestyle changes, my own personal crises (there were many!) or multiple moves. Dancers, particularly, are known to be somewhat interant. We follow the muse, we follow the jobs, we follow the opportunities like hunters.
During the screening this fall, I sat in the Auditorium and wondered about my friends, and how they fared, did they survive this epidemic? How could I just have let these brilliant special people go? My whiteness, my privilege and my ability to “pass” protected me. I know many more people in that screening suffered much greater losses.
The beautiful end to this post is my friend Thomas J. Gargana, is alive and well. I have found him, and reached out to rekindle our friendship. His career and life have progressed, and according to Tom’s facebook, he is ‘in a long-term relationship with a wonderful man.”
And while my part in ACT-UP was modest, slim as a crescent moon, I met amazing people through the actions we put on together.
My small part in it all, is nothing like the dedication of the heroes who made this film, who lived this mission out in weekly meetings, actions and gatherings, who marched literally, for years. People who suffered devastating losses, and mourned, then ultimately survived them.
As a survivor of many tough breaks, including sexual assault, volatile relationships, and cancer, I know that sometimes it seems we survive in pieces. But in community, we can find solidarity. When we stand together: we stand for life, liberty, diversity, inclusion and justice.
Nothing could be more important.