Vancouver
3 min

Not enough gay friends

For Tony, Sean and Greg, and especially for Kenn, on World AIDS Day

From left: Valdine, Kenn and Sean share Christmas Day on the Seawall. "It was 1985 and everything seemed hopeful and possible," she says. Credit: Courtesy of Valdine Ciwko

The other day, in a flip  gay way, my friend Don was musing on the fashion faux pas of others.

“Oh my gawd! That woman there should never wear yellow! Obviously not enough gay friends. That man, that belt, those pants — never! Not enough gay friends.”

And I laughed, seeing the error of their ways.

But this morning it hit me. I do not have enough gay friends, and I am angry about that. I am furiously sad about that. I can barely write this, but I feel I need to.

I need to remember the hurt and the anger, as well as the incredible love and friendship I shared when I had enough gay friends.

***
First there was Kenn, whom I adored. We met in Winnipeg, our hometown, through a mutual friend, an artist, when we, all three, worked together in income tax. Daily, we entered together into that other world of housewives and accountants, finding safety in each other.

Everyone thought Kenn was beautiful and they were confused about which one of us was dating him. Truth is, it was neither. But Kenn and I became friends, not just casual friends but the kind of friends where you can tell all. I loved him. He loved me. I had one gay friend and he seemed enough.

In 1983 Kenn moved west; I went east. It wouldn’t be until 1985 that we lived in the same city again. It was one of those perfect summer Vancouver days that always made Kenn say, “We live in paradise.” We had just turned the corner from Oppenheimer Park. I could show you the exact building we walked by when he told me he was HIV-positive. But this was 1985 and what did I know about HIV? What did anyone know about it? I was not horrified that he would die. Maybe I was too naive, or maybe he was just so calm in his announcement.

Suddenly terms like lymphadenopathy group and blood and semen and homosexuality and body-positive support groups and safer sex crept into my lexicon. And the term “living with AIDS” became so much more meaningful than dying of AIDS.

And suddenly one gay friend was not enough, and there were many.

***
Movies, popcorn, dinner parties, Scrabble games, Wreck Beach, rallies, endless rallies, ACT UP — Where Is Your Rage?, World AIDS Days, Randy Shilts’ book And the Band Played On, the beginning of the movies.

“But why do they all have to die in the end?” was always Kenn’s question and mine, too.

I am still asking it. Why did they all have to die?

Every one of my gay friends from those days is gone. And my friend, Don, is so terribly right. There are not enough gay friends. Not just the men I knew and loved. Too many others.

In 1988 I turned 30. Sean was at my birthday party, and six months later he was dying at St Paul’s.

Kenn was counselling scores of men on how to live with being HIV-positive. There was another man, whose name escapes me now, an obsessive compulsive who would wash his hands and arms until they were rubbed raw. Maybe he thought that if he washed enough the AIDS would wash away.

And there was Tony, so young and sweet and brilliant. So witty, savvy and smart.

And Greg, who joked that he had so few T-cells he knew them all by name. He vowed not to die of AIDS. Kenn was helping me pack for a trip to Europe when we got the call. We laughed and cried through the pain. AIDS did not kill Greg. His truck slipped and crushed him as he was working under it. What cruel, yet beautiful, irony.

And the funerals. The details blur from the multitude of funerals and memorials I sat through. Rae’s, Randy’s, Chris’s . . . There are snippets of them jumbled in my head, and I am angry and weeping because I cannot remember. I can’t even remember all the names.

And Kenn, whose security code read SURVIVOR, died too, just months before the breakthrough in drug treatment that might have kept him alive.

I feel cheated, betrayed, helpless, foolish, angry and lonely. Very, very lonely.

Don was right. There are definitely not enough gay friends.

***
Maybe memorials with thousands of names etched on them and World AIDS Day are important so that together we can remember and retrieve those names that we have forgotten.

Michael Callen, one of the founders of the a cappella group The Flirtations, who himself died of AIDS, wrote a song about the crisis called “Living in Wartime,” and he was right.

I remember reading my mother’s diary from the Second World War and asking her about Nick. Not only did his name appear in her diary, he had even given her an engraved silver locket. I was amazed, amused and shocked when she couldn’t remember him. But now I understand. Wartime — people die, people live. Those of us who live, keep going. Those who are gone, are gone. It becomes so matter of fact. So then. So now.

So now, for me, not enough gay friends.