The years between 1975 and1979 epitomized the height of gay culture and since I lived mostly in the Castro area, I became friends with many gay men. Although this community was not my own, I was welcomed and cared for by my new acquaintances and others. By the time I decided to return to the Midwest in 1980, settling in Minneapolis, my friendships had been solidified and I cared about these people deeply.
Looking back, I see that while in San Francisco I came of age both figuratively and chronologically. A power shift occurred during those years as working class and minority groups joined with union employees, and the elderly to form coalitions which in turn began to accelerate social change. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in America became my neighborhood’s supervisor. (He was later assassinated along with our mayor.)
I observed and later participated in all of this political upheaval and it built on values that had already been established during my upbringing. Years ago Milwaukee had the infamous reputation as one of the most segregated cities in America. I rebelled against that notion. In San Francisco, I learned what other causes I believed in, and what I was willing to do to protect and promote them. I became a believer in gay rights, women’s rights, and although I did have the normal experiences of a young person at that time, I also learned how to love – both others and myself.
Nights of Chaos
A short time after relocating to the Twin Cities in Minnesota, AIDS leveled my old neighborhood, The Castro. I spent the next thirteen years going back to visit and bury my dead. First acquaintances, then neighbors, and finally my closest friends succumbed to the virus. The experience for me, as well as many others, proved devastating. I became active in the Minnesota AIDS Project in order to channel my grief.
Twenty-five years later stories began to emerge from me. They reflect both the days of innocence in the 70s, but mostly portray the urgency of watching a generation of young men slip away. While I spent three years in a support group for friends and family of people with AIDS at Abbot Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, men were dying at an alarming rate back in the old neighborhood. During the mid-1980s more than 1,000 gay men died in a six-block radius of where I had lived. Within one year, these people literally disappeared.
What I am presenting to you as a reader involves my dealing with those illnesses and deaths as they happened, mostly from afar, being newly situated back in the Midwest. With yearly and sometimes more frequent visits; I came to know the disease and how the responses of those who contracted it differed. I got tested myself, at the Red Door Clinic, a Twin Cities AIDS testing site.
In the writing, I describe both settings, San Francisco and Minneapolis, and talk about my feelings of frustration, and anger. These feelings only fueled the AIDS activism that I became involved with. Eventually, my feelings turned to acceptance and grief.
Writing about AIDS has become a large continent in the territory of my writing. Before They Left Us is lyrical and speaks to the universality of loss. Although the medical treatment of AIDS has changed dramatically since 1996, when the cocktail of meds making it possible to survive longer with AIDS was introduced, my memories and details of it are just as sharp, just as poignant as if it were still 1988, the year I felt AIDS was at its worst. I can still sense the desperation amidst so much beauty.
Days of Wonder
It was my good fortune to live in San Francisco as a young woman during my 20s. Having grown up in Milwaukee, San Francisco was a shock as the differences between the two cities were enormous: the architecture, culture, politics and sense of freedom left over from the “flower power” era of the 60s. My years as an adopted daughter of California changed my life immensely. I moved around quite a bit between apartment buildings, Victorian flats, and duplexes. Through these moves, I gained new roommates, different views of the city, and eventually I came to live alone in a gracious, large apartment that faced Delores Park.