Friday, January 20, 2017
Why I Read My Last Think Piece On The Death of Democracy on December 1st
December 1, 2016 - it’d been just a few weeks since the election, not even a month. I’d read yet another think piece on the death of American democracy. Then I was reminded that December 1st is World AIDS Day, and I was suddenly back in grad school again - the first World AIDS Day, December 1, 1988.
It was before the magical cocktail of drugs began turning AIDS from a fatal diagnosis into a chronic but manageable illness. It wasn’t the beginning of the horror show, but it wasn’t anywhere near the end either. It was my first year in the three year program at the Yale School of Drama. We were all still sort of strangers to each other. A random assortment of people gathered in advance of December 1st, figuring that we should do something. We knew people, a lot of people, the arts community was getting hit hard. So we came up with some ideas about raising visibility.
One of them was to assemble a display on the subject in the downstairs lobby at the Yale Repertory Theater - that was the place with all the space, where the audience gathered, where refreshments and restrooms were (where we held the opening night parties). A display there meant that everyone seeing the current production would be sharing a room with information on AIDS during intermission, nowhere else for them to be.
I volunteered to put the display together. I don’t recall anything about it being especially incendiary, other than the fact that it was about AIDS, and we were just starting to talk about AIDS in the same way we finally got over whispering about cancer. I remember spending an evening on my hands and knees in the lobby, affixing images and text to poster board and sturdier display frameworks - all to go on a long table with pamphlets and the like. Almost painfully earnest, handmade, and well-intentioned, but hey, none of us had ever done this before. It was the first World AIDS Day. It was something. It was a start.
One of our professors, Dennis Scott, appeared. Nice to see a friendly face. Also nice to see an instructor’s face, since other than our faculty advisor on this event, it was pretty much an all student driven affair. Dennis told me he had a poem he’d written that he’d like to have included in the display, if that was all right. I eagerly took it from him, happy to have something artistic, something from one of us, in the mix. I wasn’t entirely sure why he felt compelled to offer something for the display - he was married, with children. But I figured he must know somebody, too. Maybe several somebodies. So up the poem went.
Returning for the fall of my second year, I noticed Dennis had lost a lot of weight, and was sometimes walking with a cane. There were whispers. Returning for the fall of my third year, Dennis was in a wheelchair. There were whispers. Then he was in the hospital. There was certainty. Then he was gone.
There was going to be a memorial service for the school community. I turned his poem into the office, with a note that he had offered it up as part of that first World AIDS Day display just a couple of years before. A few days later the Dean of the school called me into his office and said the family would like me to read the poem at his memorial service. So I did.
We’ve been here before, people.
I remember a time when the government didn’t give a crap whether some of us lived or died.
So gay people finally came kicking and screaming out of their closets because their lives depended on it. We organized, our friends by our side. We fought back. We kept speaking out until things got done.
As Tony Kushner wrote in Angels In America: ““We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come…You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”
One of the things I didn’t realize the Obama administration had taught me until recently was this:
The President works for me.
The Vice President works for me.
Every member of the Cabinet works for me.
The Speaker of the House works for me.
The Minority Leader in the House works for me.
The Majority Leader in the Senate works for me.
The Minority Leader in the Senate works for me.
Certainly my two Senators and one Representative work for me.
So we talk to them, however we can. We let them know when we’re pleased and when we’re not. We let them know what we expect of them and we hold them to account.
This guide is useful.
It’s 655 days to the mid-term elections.
Let’s get moving, my friends.
Welcome to 1988.
Some of us have been here before. And we survived.
The nice thing about it this time around is it feels like all of us, not just some of us, are in the fight now.
So, all things considered, we should be able to make the load a little easier for one another to bear.
Here’s that poem Dennis put in my hands over 28 years ago.
He’s gone. It remains…
for the blessed
in the act of loving -
a cry of birds hoping South
a perfect sentence
sudden as candlelight's leap
at my wife's mouth -
comes at any moment
that will reassert the permanence of dreams
the possibility of dancing
since there is no armour
but the festivals we make
hand over hand
(the heart's drum louder
than any sound of soldiers falling)
till the war is over
let us celebrate
ourselves, all that is kind
and carnival, living
without the acquiescences of grief
That small victory, only.
Dennis C. Scott
Welcome to 1988, everybody.
Act up. Fight back. Make some art.
The Great Work begins.