Monday, January 2, 2012

Gay Marriage Victory Still Shadowed by AIDS

via New York Times, by Austin Considine

ON the evening of June 24, Steve Mendelsohn celebrated in the street with his friends and nearly a thousand other supporters of same-sex marriage outside the Stonewall Inn, the storied gay bar in the West Village.

The setting was nothing if not appropriate: In 1969, a riot at the Stonewall would make the bar forever synonymous with the awakening of the modern gay rights movement in America.

That night, nearly a half-century later, a bill passed that would allow gay men and women to legally marry for the first time in New York State.

For Mr. Mendelsohn, 54, the moment represented an unequivocal victory: an apex to decades of struggle for equal recognition under state law.

Still, the moment was tinged with a sense of absence, as it was for many gay men his age.

Amid the jubilation, he couldn’t help but think of Phil Kanner, his partner of 15 years, who died of complications from AIDS in 1995.

“I was thinking, ‘I wish Phil were here with me,’ ” Mr. Mendelsohn said in an interview in the fall, adding later, “If my partner were alive, I believe we would have married.”

For many middle-aged gay men in New York City, the passage of the same-sex marriage law was in part a fresh reminder of the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, when men like Mr. Mendelsohn, the director of a nonprofit media group, lost innumerable friends and loved ones to a disease that was often as stigmatizing as it was deadly.

At the height of the epidemic, the disease took tens of thousands of lives in the United States each year; it reached its deadly peak in 1995, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the number of deaths of those with AIDS reaching more than 50,000 that year.

Those who survived haven’t stopped living, forming new relationships and organizing for equality in the decades since.

But the memory of what was lost lingers — a shadow cast by marriage equality’s glow.

“New losses can trigger old feelings of grief, but so can successes, so something like having gay marriage can trigger feelings of loss,” said James Masten, a Manhattan psychotherapist and author who has worked with patients with H.I.V. and AIDS for the last 20 years.

“Even though it’s a positive experience, it can still remind us of all the people who aren’t here, who haven’t had the opportunity to see this — all the activists who never lived to this point,” he added.

Jeffrey Sharlach, 58, founder of a Manhattan-based communications firm and an adjunct associate professor of management communication at New York University, said he lost nearly every one of his gay friends in New York during the 1980s and ’90s, including his partner of more than 12 years, Ken Williams, who died in 1994 at age 33.

Mr. Sharlach is publishing a novel in May about that period in his life called “Running in Bed,” which he described as about a quarter autobiographical.

For Mr. Sharlach, New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic became an empty shell, its streets a constant reminder of loved ones who were disappearing. “Every single block would be like, ‘Oh, I remember this guy used to live here.’ ”

“It was like a city of ghosts,” he added.

With the passing of time, many of those who survived the 1980s and ’90s have gone on to form meaningful long-term relationships.

Some, like Mr. Mendelsohn, took advantage of the same-sex marriage law fairly quickly. In September, he married Wallie Pagunsan, exactly two years after the day they met.

Others, like Mr. Sharlach, believe that the moment for marrying may have passed. Though he, too, has a long-term partner, his second since Mr. Williams died, he has little interest in marrying.

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