Personal/History: Teaching the Next Generation about the AIDS Crisis

I spent the evening of November 3rd weeping. I’d been teaching Tony Kushner’s Angels in America to my high school juniors and seniors in a seminar on literature and identity. Angels is a masterpiece—so powerful, so beautiful, and so important for young people to encounter now that the 1980s and ’90s are “ancient history.” But when I added Angels to the course syllabus this past summer, I had no idea how painful it would be to read, let alone to teach, again.

I come out to my students, directly or indirectly, with no fuss or fanfare. I mention it as casually as I mention being Jewish.

READ: A Gay Perspective on Punishment and Disease

But on that November day, I had to come out to my students in a much more personal way: revealing that my first partner, Warren Krause, died of AIDS, and that I cared for him throughout his illness, right through to his death. I hadn’t planned to disclose that painful part of my past—of my identity—but I was having trouble staying present, listening to what my students had to say, guiding discussion. As the character Prior Walter in Angels watched KS lesions invade and conquer his body, as he woke up drenched from fever and night sweats, as he was overwhelmed by humiliation and shame when he shat himself, unable to reach the bathroom in time, I kept flashing back on similar scenes from Warren’s illness, and my eyes kept welling up with tears. Unexpectedly, and perhaps even with a sense of shame for losing control, I realized I couldn’t keep teaching that day without letting the students know that the play hits me very close to home. Without dwelling on the subject, I came out as an AIDS widow.

After class I had to duck into the faculty bathroom and cry. And then that evening I wept, and wept, and wept. Eventually, I grew frightened. This wasn’t thunderstorm grief, overwhelming in its sudden violence but mercifully brief. This was bottomless grief, endless grief, the grief where your crying stops not because the pain has finally passed but because your exhausted body finally gives out and shuts down your heart and mind. And my body was showing no signs of giving out yet.

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Feeling utterly bereft and alone, I finally remembered that I am not alone. There are people in my life whom I love and who love me. And so I reached out to one of the very dearest: my beloved friend Marc, whom I have known since before Warren got sick, and who was also a gay activist, and who is also now a teacher. For once, I was grateful Marc now lives in England, since midnight my time is breakfast his time. I texted, “I think I’ve made a BIG mistake trying to teach Angels in America again.” He responded almost instantaneously, and I explained: “When I taught Angels at the college level, it was hard. But nothing like this. I thought it would become easier as I grew older, but instead I feel more emotional, more raw, more vulnerable.”

Thanks to Marc’s love and understanding, I realized I’d be able to finish the job. No choice but to wade in the water, as the spiritual says. And I resolved to make the experience meaningful for my students. But I also half-resolved that in the future I wouldn’t choose to wade in this particular water again—at least in the classroom.

The more I wrestled with these feelings, the more I wanted to reach out to friends and comrades from ACT UP, the AIDS activist group that played such a crucial role in changing the national and even international response to AIDS in the late ’80s and early ’90s. So much of who I am and what I’ve accomplished I owe to them. But it has been years since I’ve been an AIDS activist. And besides, shouldn’t I have “worked through” my grief by now? With considerable trepidation, I posted my pain, fear, and uncertainty on Facebook.

Nothing I’ve ever posted has provoked as much response. To my immense relief, expressions of love, encouragement, and empathy flooded my Facebook page. Two kinds of response struck me most deeply. The first were replies from fellow teachers sharing their own painful experiences trying to teach young people about a history that Americans in general, let alone young Americans, know nothing of, while struggling with the added burden of not knowing what, as teachers, to do with our pain and grief.

The other responses that stopped me in my tracks were from friends who lovingly but firmly emphasized my responsibility. How will the next generations know our history if we who lived it don’t share it, including—no, especially—the parts that still make us weep. These friends urged me to be honest and vulnerable with my students. They reminded me that Warren—my vibrant, tender, angry, uncensorable lover—would want me to speak our truth. They reminded me of ACT UP’s most powerful slogan: Silence = Death. One of them even quoted Angels in America to me: “The Great Work Begins!”

And so, a few days later, I devoted the seminar’s entire session to telling my students more about the AIDS crisis and its place in gay history and in my life. I spoke from the heart about growing up gay in suburbia in the 1970s, about the AIDS crisis, about ACT UP, and about finding, loving, caring for, and losing my beloved partner Warren.

At times, I struggled through tears. Twice, I didn’t know if I’d be able to continue. But the students were so very present—so open, caring, and receptive—so riveted—that each time I choked up I managed to regain control of my voice and continue my story. I concluded class by reading aloud my Facebook post and sharing the gist of the comments that had most encouraged me to take this risk, the responses that had rekindled my sense of responsibility, as someone lucky enough to have survived that time, to pass on as much of the experience as I can to succeeding generations.

I ended my talk by telling the students I was glad I hadn’t chickened out. They were glad too, and with their sweet and grateful responses, they made sure I knew it.

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