This week marks the 23rd anniversary of World AIDS Day. One of the things that AIDS has made us do is talk about it, to learn and understand it and the lives it affects. I’d like to share a few stories, if I may, about the people with HIV/AIDS who have affected me.
If Freddie Mercury were alive today, he would’ve celebrated his 65th birthday last week. And he would still be rocking us.
There was something about Mercury that made him safe in so many ways to a young teenaged me. He was bombastic but knew how to be subtle when he needed to. He was camp but the head-bangers in my high school dug him because Wayne’s World had made Queen cool again. I remember telling them, years later, that Mercury was queer, a fact that had somehow eluded them. To have someone be openly queer and part of such a “masculine” genre of music seemed almost impossible to them. But there he was, staring them right in the face, all the while winking at me, telling me that everything was going to be all right.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all right for Freddie. He died from complications due to AIDS on Nov 24, 1991, one day after he publicly announced that he was HIV-positive.
His death brought about discussions around HIV/AIDS, as well as sexuality, even in such “straight”-laced places as rock and roll.
In May of 1992, just a few months after Mercury’s death, a concert was held in his honour to mark his passing. Watching it on television left a huge mark on me, watching the performers sing the lyrics that Freddie would no longer sing. For those outside of the queer world, HIV and AIDS were frightening words that were mired in confusion and fear. Yet here was a man whose legacy was able to rally together such disparate artists as Metallica and Guns N’ Roses with Annie Lennox and David Bowie.
Not long before Mercury’s passing, Queen released the single “The Show Must Go On,” a track that discusses the very fragility of a performer’s life. “My makeup may be flaking but my smile still stays on,” could almost be Mercury’s epitaph, the line speaking of the consummate strength a performer holds on to, because the story, the message, the myth, is stronger than the man.
Freddie Mercury made it okay to be different. To be who you wanted to be. To be who I wanted to be. The show will go on, because of him.