Dancing with the Survivors: A Conversation Between Two Friends – Sarah T. Roberts and Ryan P. Adserias

Crawford Wayne Barton Collection, Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. http://www.glbthistory.org/archives/

Sarah Roberts:

listen, queen. We’ve been friends for a hell of a long time.

Ryan Adserias:

11

Sarah Roberts:

11 and a half years, in fact.
and I feel like asking you to talk about AIDS with me is stupid, because we do it always and always have done it.
It’s always been a weird backdrop and constant specter.
I don’t mean the AIDS scares that you’ve gone through or the people we know who’ve gotten HIV while we’ve been friends.
I mean that other part, which is the people who aren’t here and haven’t been for you, and for me, in our adult gay lives.

Ryan Adserias:

It shapes everything.

Sarah Roberts:

I feel like we are always talking about it, even when we aren’t. Even when we say nothing.

Ryan Adserias:

Yes because it necessarily foregrounds our lives
our interests

Ryan Adserias:

I feel an immense sense of loss

Sarah Roberts:

it’s like what I imagine the force field of a black hole is. you can spot it based on absence, how the gravitational pull affects things that pass it by.

Ryan Adserias:

That’s a good image…
I’ve been wrestling with what AIDS means in the context of our current climate and I’ve been struggling to situate it.

Ryan Adserias:

What I mean is, it feel like it’s something that’s out there, that is exacting a toll and has exacted a toll, but it’s still immeasurable, if that makes sense.

Sarah Roberts:

and yet there are ways that I can measure it for us.
like the fact that you’re a decade younger than me and you have a full head of grey hair.

Ryan Adserias:

Haha well, yes, I’m sure my several irrational HIV panics contributed to my mane.
I don’t know, I discovered that AIDS Memorial Instagram account sometime after the election, and it has contributed to an overwhelming sense of loss that was already there – both about AIDS and not

Sarah Roberts:

Tell me about that Instagram account. I follow it, too.

Ryan Adserias:

Seeing all these people, almost all of whom are men, and reading their stories, really just pulled focus on that sense of loss
That account, for me, is the perfect encapsulation of the Portuguese saudade – yearning or a person or thing that will never return.

Ryan Adserias:

I don’t know maybe the better word for it Sehnsucht[*].

Ryan Adserias:

and what’s so strange about it, and what I can’t really put my finger on, is the fact that I never had these people in my life, but I can still feel their presence, or at least the weight their presence has had on others, on society, on the body politic.

Sarah Roberts:

I was just coming into my gay identity at a time when the AIDS crisis was very much present still. A childhood friend’s father died. I remember seeing men on the city bus with KS. Stuff like that. But that decade of difference between us means that I feel like you might not have those same kind of memories, or necessarily have been aware in the same way.

Sarah Roberts:

And yet the effects of it on your life are so profound in so many ways.

Ryan Adserias:

Yes. That’s exactly it

Sarah Roberts:

In such a different way from mine.

Ryan Adserias:

My consciousness about HIV/AIDS began around 1994, when we got the first human sexuality/puberty talk in school
That was when we first learned about Ryan White
and how we couldn’t get HIV like he did – through a transfusion – but we could by having premarital sex(!) and that we thus should avoid having sex at all costs
Of course that meant nothing to me, as I had zero interest in girls and couldn’t name my silent obsession with boys
This was also around that time that AZT and other antiretrovirals were beginning to become mainstreamed and increasingly effective.

Sarah Roberts:

And of course, although AIDS is not a “gay disease,” per se, to a young gay person that must have carried a certain psychological heft, if addressed at all.

Ryan Adserias:

But that was never a message that was imparted, only that if you have sex, you’ll probably get AIDS and die

Sarah Roberts:

I know for me that my first identification with gay culture was, perhaps bizarrely and perhaps not, with AIDS.

Ryan Adserias:

How so?
Err… what was it?

Sarah Roberts:

well, people with AIDS were featured on the nightly news, and identified clearly as being gay. “Homosexual,” I’m sure was the term.
So the people visible to me – clearly, unabashedly visible – were often people with AIDS, or people fighting for people with AIDS.

Ryan Adserias:

I have to say that there’s a part of me that’s a little jealous. It means that your consciousness was shaped by the activists who weren’t afraid to be advocates.

Sarah Roberts:

You’re right. I do consider it a gift for which I am grateful.

Ryan Adserias:

I think by the time my consciousness was being shaped, most of that public activism had waned and it was before there were any publicly out celebrities or other “role models”

Sarah Roberts:

Sort of the worst of the middle state.
Invisibility and absence, again.

Ryan Adserias:

I mean, my consciousness was shaped by there being these “bad people who got AIDS” and then people whose existence was invisible… and then there was Ellen and kd lang and then Melissa Etheridge

Sarah Roberts:

laugh – ALL LESBIANS

Ryan Adserias:

Hahahahah
yes
oh and then Elton John
And I remember being confused because there weren’t any gay men I could identify except Elton John but he was too cartoonish.

Ryan Adserias:

“Flamboyant,” Ryan.

Ryan Adserias:

Maybe that’s why I’m a lesbian: my schemata were formed by lesbians
Anyway.

Sarah Roberts:

So given this context and backdrop – no visibility, an awareness of AIDS that wasn’t connected to you, a sense of your own gayness but little context, all in a small town and surrounded by (among other things) evangelical Christianity
what does it mean for you to encounter something like the AIDS Memorial Instagram account?

Ryan Adserias:

Oh god
Well, I read these stories and I see these men who aren’t with us, and I think about what it would have meant to have had older gay brothers to help
Now that I think about how my consciousness was shaped by all these lesbians, I’m trying to think who was the first gay man of whom I was aware…
I have a great uncle and his partner, but that was complicated and I was kind of sheltered by their relationship being erased (i.e., framed as being “friends”)
But yeah, I can’t think of who the first gay man was… and I think a large part of that was because a whole generation of them were erased

Ryan Adserias:

either by disease, stigma, or the fact that they were all too tired out from fighting that they weren’t as visible, if that makes sense.

Sarah Roberts:

of course it does
Visibility is a luxury in so many ways.

Ryan Adserias:

At the same time, I look at the touchstones of pre-AIDS gay culture that were erased – and with it points of gay male visibility – like the clubs and the bathhouses, etc.

Ryan Adserias:

You know, I’ll never forget when we went to see… I can’t remember if it was Erasure or Yaz, I think it was Yaz, because I think it was in Chicago, and I went to get a beer and I was surrounded by all these 40-something gay men
I can’t really describe the feeling, but it was so different

Sarah Roberts:

yes, and that was nine years ago already.

Ryan Adserias:

It was remarkable

Ryan Adserias:

So many gay men of a certain age that I just didn’t really see very many of them

Ryan Adserias:

and they were all so curious about this young thing who was listening to their music
It seems like not a lot of people listen to their music – hear their stories, consider their loss… my god their loss. I get a similar feeling whenever I scroll through that Instagram account
I couldn’t help but think about how many guys had died since Yaz was around

Sarah Roberts:

I felt the same way. I was very conscious that we were dancing with the survivors that night.

Ryan Adserias:

Right? That theatre had an atmosphere about it that was quite different from anything else… from the atmosphere around Erasure or Morrissey concerts
because Yaz was resurrected for that one night only.

Sarah Roberts:

and yet when you look at that account, I know it’s difficult and painful in a lot of ways. You and I talk a lot about how we spend time reading and crying…

Ryan Adserias:

Oh god
a lot of time crying
It all felt so unnecessary
felt. feels

Ryan Adserias:

I read these stories and know that had I been born 20 years earlier I would probably be in one of those posts.
I know that’s something I say a lot, this feeling I have that had I been born earlier I would be dead from and AIDS-related illness, but I really do feel like that

Sarah Roberts:

This is weird but… do you feel a nostalgia for that era, or almost like you somehow missed out?
Or maybe that’s the saudade. The longing.

Ryan Adserias:

I think about it in terms of pictures I see of people posting images of their grandparents, noting that had they not immigrated from Europe they’d have died and they wouldn’t be around. I feel something similar
That’s the saudade. Or Sehnsucht.
It’s like I’ve been – my generation has been – robbed of something
Not only all the people, but the places and culture. But then again who knows, without AIDS would the current state of gay liberation exist in its current form?
Would it be more difficult to be out if all those gay brothers and sisters had not have had to fight for even the most basic forms of recognition? I don’t know.
But I think I’d trade in our current forms of gay liberation to have that generation back.
to regain that culture

Sarah Roberts:

That generation.

The former home of the Paradise Garage, 2006
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=533460

Ryan Adserias:

It’s kinda funny, too. “That generation” is my parents’ generation, right? My parents were in their early 20s when AIDS hit… and all I do is complain about them

Sarah Roberts:

In a way, I think your form of gay identity is similar to a lot of that generation in ways that alienate you from some of your age-peers.
Like, this is where your grey hair comes in.

Ryan Adserias:

That’s probably the crux of my personal sense of loss, right?

Sarah Roberts:

You have way more in common with the men and women who fled rural places in America to go congregate in big cities and be with each other there, away from families of origin, than, say, the conservative dude in your undergrad who openly announced that he’d be “the first gay U.S. Senator from Wisconsin.”[†]

Ryan Adserias:

Oh god.
Herb Kohl, The Dairy Queen.
Yes, I do have more in common with Gen Xers and before than my age-peers… having been forced to grow up quickly, etc.
That makes a lot more sense to me; it’s a logic that fits.

Sarah Roberts:

So where does this loss leave us? Leave you?

Ryan Adserias:

I really don’t know.
I know that that San Francisco Chronicle piece on long-term survivors of AIDS really hit me hard – as it did you

Sarah Roberts:

It did.

Ryan Adserias:

and there didn’t seem to be a lot of hope in that piece
The general message seemed to be “life sucks and you have to figure out how to make it suck a little less every day”

Sarah Roberts:

Well. Let me share a thought that has come to me. Because I think you’re right on that point and that is sort of the general takeaway, not only of the piece, or of the outcome of the crisis, but of life.

Ryan Adserias:

It kind of feels like that generation has had a big head start, and we have a head start on what it’s like to live a very long time: life is very long when you’re lonely.

Sarah Roberts:

In a way, I think our friendship – long-term, loving, familial, mutually supportive – is actually a loving and lovely tribute to the generation whose absence we feel so acutely.

Ryan Adserias:

I think that’s a beautiful way of putting it.

Sarah Roberts:

The way gay people – men, women, genderqueer – came together during that time to support each other, as friends and family, is our best legacy.
And I think it’s what we do for each other all the time, even if we don’t often say it quite like that.

Ryan Adserias:

You’re right
And I’m glad we found each other
because I don’t think that is a lesson most have learned.

Ryan Adserias:

I love you, Sarah 😊
now I’m crying

Sarah Roberts:

It’s okay to cry. I love you, too.

Ryan Adserias:

and I haven’t even looked at the AIDS Memorial tonight.

 

[*] A German term conveying a deep, almost indescribable emotional longing or pain.

[†] Tammy Baldwin beat him on being openly gay, and we guess we should acknowledge Herb Kohl here, too.

Sarah T. Roberts is a lesbian who lives in California. Ryan P. Adserias is a gay man who lives in Wisconsin. They are best friends.

 

Thumbnail image credit: Crawford Wayne Barton Collection, Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. http://www.glbthistory.org/archives/



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