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Reminiscences of An Aging Lesbian on World AIDS Day -Barbara Little

Reminisces of an aging Lesbian. December 1, World AIDS day The importance of Community: The theme for this year’s World AIDS day is “Let Communities Lead”. Before I knew this years’ theme, I sat down and wrote a list of the friends and coworkers I was aware of testing positive and died of AIDS during that time. My community of friends and coworkers in Fort Lauderdale, and Miami had become my Florida Family. I grew to know this community as my “logical family”, a quote attributed to the author of “Tales of the City” Armistead Maupin. I had moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1981 and found myself working in a community of people from a variety of states, countries, and backgrounds. I had left my hometown community of Port Huron, Michigan, I was looking to find a community that would welcome me. This 29-year-old closeted queer woman looking for herself in a community where being queer offered others who were like her (me!). And there were beaches and bars and a treasured nursing school friend who knew me, saw (understood) me, and welcomed me.

World AIDS day did not start until December 1, 1988. By that time there were 45,000 Americans dead because of the AIDS epidemic. And tens of thousands of dead worldwide. The shame, condemnation and judgement of families and churches and health care contributed to many of the deceased AIDS community dying alone. They had been shunned by their “biological” families and communities. I eventually learned to get used to the baskets full of condoms being offered in the bars and doctor’s offices. Educational moments at the hospitals where I worked. I worked on the Mental Health units. My direct care for people with HIV and then AIDS was minimal, but it did impact me directly as I gradually settled into the community at a time when it was new, scary, and filled with condemnation from the churches and leaders in the local and national government.

I arrived in Fort Lauderdale on September 20, 1981. I had a job waiting for me. I had all my clothes, three orange crates filled with my music albums, my Magnevox component stereo, some kitchen items, my guitar and hundreds of snot and tear soaked Kleenex from crying every mile from Michigan. I had a quilt made by my twin sister, and an oversized crocheted orange blanket made by my mother. I arrived at my best friends’ home crying and telling her I made a big mistake, and I would have to go back in a week. I settled in on her couch wrapped in my quilt and blanket around me as I clutched my box of Kleenex. I dried my tears when I found out she had friends coming over to help her celebrate her birthday that evening. So, my new community started growing that evening.

I Soon started my job. I found my new hospital populated by a cast of characters, colors, ethnicities, languages, accents, and religions all in one place. More than I had seen in my years living and growing up in Port Huron and other parts of Michigan. But the night that it struck me, “I was not in Kansas anymore”, as Dorothy said to Toto. It was the 31 st of October. I went to the biggest Gay bar in Fort Lauderdale, “Backstreet”. I went there from my new job, with my drab Port Huron style work clothes, stood on a balcony looking out on an arena size dance floor, taking in hundreds of dancers, men and women in elaborate costumes. I knew I was in a community I had been seeking, and I had to do some serious clothes shopping.

I was getting acquainted with my coworkers. Steve was one of our evening staff. We hit it off, he was friendly and loved to tell stories about working with Jesse Jackson when he worked in Chicago. Steve told me he did not know his parents, he was adopted. He spoke about girls as if he was straight. I was beginning to think Steve was a bit of a liar. But I found his carelessness with the truth endearing, he had many tales that sounded almost true but… I accepted his need to be a liar. It was a way to cope with being Gay, and I got it.

We decided to go to Key West for a weekend in early December. We booked a room at a B and B not too far from “The Monster”, a disco gay bar. The biggest club in Key West. Steve and I loved to dance. Steve kept saying, this was all new to him, going to the gay bar, I did not believe him all. We went to dinner and back to the room. He said he was not tired, I stayed in our room, and I did not see him until Sunday when we had to go back to Fort Lauderdale, he wanted me to believe this was his first time. We both knew it was a lie. I smiled and he acted nervous about this “new” event. We lived with that “truth” for quite some time.

Steve was one of my first friends in Florida, and he was the first friend I knew who developed AIDS. I had met a past love of his and then Eddie who was his partner he moved in with, by that time we had moved on from denial of truths. His partner Eddie was kind and loving and was with Steve until he died in 1987. Eddie was lucky to have a family that accepted him and was with his biological family for his journey with AIDS through to the end.

This entirely new community was leading in the work for increased awareness of this “Gay disease” as it was being called. It was this same community that was essential to creating awareness of the virus. Fund raising for research, locally and nationally. Working in health care, I was appalled by the judgements and attitudes of some health care workers. Our first HIV positive patient on our unit was a young man, scared as hell. He was in one of our psych units, but a psych diagnosis was not his first diagnosis. He was gay and a victim of a new virus. We had a male nurse on our staff at the time, he was not part of my logical family/community. He refused to work on the unit where this young man was a patient. The male RN was assigned to another unit. The ignorance was evident.

I remember talking to our patient, a young man with a colostomy, he needed help with his bag. I helped him. We chatted; he asked me if I was worried about the virus. I did something for him that was risky, I helped him, I reassured him, I listened to his worries. And I did NOT wear gloves, a risk I was not fully aware of at that time. But I saw a scared little boy whose humanity was looking for humane, kindness at that moment. I believe he felt his own humanity in my actions. Perhaps I was protected by the immunity of Humanity and kindness.

I moved to a job in the big city of Miami, a very exciting time and place. A community of an extended logical family, I learned Spanish, I discovered the cuisines of the Caribbean Islands, Central America, South America, and our own African American traditions. A dynamic and aware community.

And more beautiful kind people of my Logical community. Ivan and his partner Pedro. Both left Cuba for a better life, earning money to support themselves and to send back to their families. Ivan had left a career path in Medicine; he was very intelligent and made a very overqualified medical assistant. As I got to know him through work, and our social gatherings as a work team, I met his partner. Ivan did his best to teach me some very fast-moving Latin dances. He was well respected by the entire staff including the medical staff. When he started having medical problems, he was out sick for a day or two. I feared for him. Later he took a leave of absence. And we lost a valued and loved member of our staff.

Ivan died of AIDS, we had a service for him in our banquet room at the hospital. Our staff were all in attendance, our department manager, Dan (also HIV positive) played piano. Dan’s partner Daniel (also HIV positive) was a pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church, gave a message, a homily. And yours truly led the singing. By this time our hospital staff and the entire community was growing in support of medication trials, education provided for health care workers improved. Sharing truths with the doubters in our world. Churches started talking about it, the “Gay disease” was being exposed as not just the Gay people in the community.

It was the awareness and growth of a local and global community that made a difference for millions. It was this community effort that led to the awareness, understanding, and improvement of the suffering individuals. It was the community leadership that offered hope to those who were suffering and victims of a new and scary virus.

I have a list of names, short in the context of the history of World AIDS day. The community of health care workers who took the time and effort to be with AIDS patients in hospitals where family members would not visit, where staff refused to work. Where community members showed up to lead the way in support of getting legislation for the treatment of AIDS and research into treatment of this HIV virus.

When I evolved in my career as a Nurse Practitioner, I met many patients with hopes as they chose to participate in taking a “cocktail” of medications that was beginning to make a difference in their health. They were warriors bravely taking a fistful of medications daily. Sharing information with others as to what helped get the medicine down, Pepsi worked to calm the stomach. I heard from my patients that a particular antidepressant that created increased hunger and weight gain was a welcomed side effect.

As a provider, I learned these helpful hints from my patient’s lived experience. I shared this with that patient community. But what they shared with me was their hope, their humanity, humility, and extreme Grace. They nurtured me and led me. They have stayed in my heart and continue to lead me as I moved on in my career. Then continue to accompany me as I find myself in my current community.

I recall Steve, endearing in an energetic way, some called him a liar, I saw him as a storyteller as a means of survival. He was soon distracted from his storytelling for his need for survival. He was not alone in his death and dying, he had a community of which I was humbled to be a member. Steve’s partner Eddie was accepted back to his family, where he lived out his days.

Ivan had the biggest warmest smile; he loved his job. He was kind and generous to all, he made sure our patients who came from the streets left with clean clothes and shoes. His English was not fluent, but his communication was loud and clear: kindness, compassion, and Love shone from his smiling eyes. His heart emerged with his smile. He died surrounded by his coworkers, partner Pedro and an entire community contributing to a wider awareness of this devastating disease.

Dan L and Daniel R: Dan L was a confident and outspoken leader, a professor, motivated to live, he had been HIV positive for a few years when I met him in 1987. He was my boss. He and Daniel R had met in the Army and been a couple for 20 years when I met them. Both were HIV positive, Daniel R was light and cheerful, a smile and sparkle in his eye. He worked for the Health Department, he was an avidsupporter and educator of HIV/AIDS in his job as an RN in the health department, he died of AIDS in the early 90s. Dan L. lived through the trials of the medication cocktails, he continued his education, he believed living a positive and productive life was the key to survival and success. He experienced all the opportunistic diseases related to HIV had to offer. He went on with his career as a nurse, got an MBA, MSN, a PhD in nursing administration, and an NP this was after the death of his partner Daniel R. and starting a new relationship with Ricardo. Unfortunately, I do not know where or what became of Dan L. I saw him at his home in 2012. I know he retired from his nursing career in the mid 20teens then moved to Ricardo’s homeland of Nicaragua. His last email told me he was well cared for by Ricardo and his family, returned to Miami for health care visits, but had not been back to S. Florida for a while due to Covid. The email I had for him has not gone through. If he is alive, he will celebrate his 76 th birthday this December 24th .

Joey was a friend of Dan and Daniel, he was shorter than most of the world, I remember him looking for fun and laughter, dancing, and music. His favorite thing to do at Halloween was to dress up as “sprout” the little elf that helped the Jolly Green Giant in the commercial. He was a big loss to Dan.

Terry was a young man from the purchasing department of the hospital in Miami. I knew him in passing, he was quiet, awkward, and shy. He was the guy who did not sit with others at lunch. But I saw him as part of this new community. The staff NP that was our Health Nurse for the hospital staff was his only support person, he was scared and timid, but I remember him with a smile as I offered support and greetings when I encountered him.

So many stories to know and hear. So many more to remember on this day of AIDS awareness. Think of those you know or knew, surviving or cared for in a time of need by a community that was led by a few that grew to thousands. But remember, it was and always will be the effort of the entire community that will lead the way to a better future. Sharing stories through the generations will keep us strong and growing as a community of Grace, Love, and Kindness that we inherited from the past generations. As a new Center of Allies in this exact time and place where we live and love. We will continue to provide leadership to a community that will lead the way to acceptance, inclusivity and tell the stories to the next generation. We stand on the shoulders of those we knew, loved, and were led by in the Queer communities of our past. I wear my Red Ribbon lovingly and proudly. -Barbara Little

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