I grew up watching some of my mom’s closest friends die of AIDS. I would go with her to their funerals, standing there, holding her hand, while she and her friends would cry at the impossibility of losing someone else.
She told me that these men were brave and strong. That they had lived their lives to the fullest all the way to the end.
“They are not perverts or deviants, the only thing wrong with them is they have been forgotten by their country and the people who are supposed to take care of them and love them,” she told me. “I don’t care how sick they are, how the disease eats away at them: they are heroes.”
Recently I was sitting in a café in Berlin, scrolling through the Instagram account of The AIDS Memorial, created as a space for people who have lost loved ones to AIDS to tell the stories of those who are no longer with us. Looking at the photos, I felt like the whole world was falling down around me. I had an overwhelming feeling of loss and devastation, and had to go to the bathroom so that no one would see me crying.
But there was also something beautiful to the stories: love and friendship, family, a refusal to forget. A place to come to remember those who had died not just as victims of a terrible plague, but as humans who had laughed and loved, who were once alive and full of hope.
David Bolt tells the story of his partner, Felix, pictured at the top of this page..
“Here is my Felix in 1972 at Fire Island as Carmen Miranda, second from the left. Felix left New York City shortly after this photograph was taken to live openly and freely in San Francisco where he found acceptance and love beyond measure. This photograph depicts a weekend at Fire Island where Felix and his friends would escape the heat, intolerance, and oppression of NYC in the early 1970s. All the beautiful souls in this photograph are gone now, including my sweet, wonderful, incomparable and unique Felix. I met Felix in 1982 at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. I was instantly smitten by his wit, charm, and joy. He mentored me, coached me, dressed me and reinvented me into the man I am today with his love and affection and devotion. We were together from 1983 until last year when Felix lost his over 20 year valiant battle with HIV. These past months have been the toughest days and weeks of my life. I have a deep hole in my heart. Sometimes, I pretend Felix is away and returning so I can feel good temporarily yet then the reality of the loss hits me all over again. I weep and I am confused. Everything seems to be turned upside down. Most of the time I do not know what to do. Felix was my world.”
Briana Buck tells the story of her Uncle Nick, and how he made her feel like the most special person in the whole world when one day he dropped everything to drive 75 miles to bake cookies with her when she was a child. “No matter what he always made me feel special, made me feel like I was the child he never had,” she writes. “When he died I was devastated. I was glad he moved to Vermont to spend time with all of us in his final days. Though it was hard to watch him wither away at least we could show him we loved him and were nearby.”
Steve Sagaser writes about his partner, Sergio Anguiano. The two of them met in 1991 while attending UC Berkeley.
“As his partner, the entire 2 ½ year experience was heart-wrenching and terrifying.” Steve writes. “I had no other friends going through this experience. Sergio was 21 years old in 1993 when he died—in our Berkeley apartment, in my arms.
“It was so painful to watch him fight for his life knowing others felt he somehow deserved to die. The knowledge of that was excruciating. It literally took years of heroic social justice activist movements to push the government to value our lives too—only then did help finally arrive, but not in time to save Sergio.”
It’s easy to forget, in the age of PrEP and TASP (Treatment as Prevention), that just 28 years ago the virus ravaged and destroyed large segments of a number of marginalized communities in the US. The African American and Latino communities, the trans community, low income and homeless people, as well as those suffering from substance abuse and mental health issues, and some of the most beautiful and talented people of the LGBTQ community.
One of my best friends, Ken, has been HIV Positive since 1991. He is one of the “lucky” ones. He never got sick, he survived. But surviving meant he had to watch those he loved die.
A few months ago we were sitting in his house in the Echo Park Hills, the Downtown LA skyline sparkling outside his large picture windows. He was telling me the story of his partner, Mikey. “We knew something was wrong with Mikey, but we were both so scared,” he said. “We were young, we thought we had forever. We had only been together a few years, but I believed, and maybe still do, that I was going to share my whole life with Mikey.”
“Mikey didn’t want to go in for the test but I made him. I told him it would be better to know than not know. It was just a few months later that he died. He got so sick so fast. I always say I am lucky because in those months before he died I got to be there for him, to help take care of him, to love him. It means a lot to me that he knew he wasn’t alone. He wrote this beautiful note for me to read after he died, telling me that I was his one and only true love, in this life and the next. To this day I still feel that love.”
Ken began to cry. He showed me a small shrine he has in his office, with a picture of Mikey. “In those last few moments I got to be there with him, to hold his hand as he died,” he said. “I remember the exact moment when his struggled breathing just stopped, the moment when he went from being alive to being dead. Nothing will ever ache like that again, will it?”
In 1988 I was a student at Sarah Lawrence College, living in an apartment on Court Street in Brooklyn Heights. It was August, and New York was suffering a heat wave. It was too hot to stay inside, so I took the train into the East Village and walked up to Crow Bar. I ordered a beer and flirted with a cute boy with dark curly hair, green eyes, and pale white skin. After a few minutes I followed him into the dark room. We made out, and then, dropping to my knees, I sucked him off.
Outside, we both laughed. We had come to escape the heat, not for sex.
“It’s always this way,” he said to me, his voice had a deep Irish lilt. He told me his name was Aron and he was from Dublin. A student at NYU. “We could go on a proper date,” he said. He was smiling. Every time I think of him I remember that smile: he always seemed to be laughing. Happy.
We met the following night in front of his dorm. The night was hot and humid, our shirts wet with sweat. Aron wanted to get a pizza and take it to the Brooklyn Bridge, to have a picnic.
We sat on the bridge eating pizza and drinking whiskey, the City laid out in sparkling lights like a vision of the future, and we told each other the stories of our lives and who we believed we were.
Aron was going to be a Veterinarian. I was going to be a writer.
We walked across the bridge to the Promenade and made out on one of the benches. We spent the night on the roof of my apartment building, fucking and talking and pretending there were stars in the over-lit New York Sky.
Our second date we met in Central Park. Aron had never been to the Rambles. I had a long history of cruising the park and told him I would be his tour guide. After we walked all the way from the park to the West Village. We ate falafel and Aron told me that for our third date we should go up to Harlem to this soul food restaurant he had heard about.
“Oh yeah? A third date?”
His roommate was out of town so we spent the night in his dorm. In the morning I had to leave early to meet my father.
I called Aron a few times over the next month, but he never answered. Never returned my calls. Months later, a friend we had in common told me Aron had killed himself. A few weeks before his death, he'd found out he had AIDS.
I still think of him. Of who we might have been. Of who he might have become. He had the most beautiful eyes, the most stunning laugh.
I tested positive in 2013. The world had changed. It no longer meant a death sentence. But I was still scared. That moment, when I heard the words being said, that I had tested positive, I felt hopeless, life suddenly took on a new depth, a sudden realization that, even if not from HIV, eventually I would die.
When those feelings of fear hit me, and they still do, I think of men like Uncle Nick, and of Felix, of Sergio and Mikey, and of Aron, of all the men I have known who died from this disease, and I remember: I am lucky. I am surrounded by love. I am healthy. My life, even at 50, even with HIV, is laid out before me full of possibility.
And so I do everything I can to live it as big and full of love as possible. In honor of them. In honor of all those who died.
I am grateful to The AIDS Memorial, to everyone who has told their stories of love and loss, for those who keep the dead alive. They deserve that from us.
They deserve to never be forgotten.
Follow Jeff Leavell on Instagram.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.