coming of age & AIDS

Identities become not so much categories to be occupied, owned, protected, or rejected, but spaces to be navigated, revisited, revised and elided on a moment-to-moment basis.

– Noreen Giffney

Over the Ortmann’s New Year’s family lunch on February 1st – yes, we tend to postpone celebrations – my niece Bettina, who is a librarian in Brugge, referred to “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai. A pageturner, which she enjoyed a lot. “It’s about a bunch of gay men in Chicago in the 80s”, she said “and about how they coped with AIDS”.

The book is a nice read, although I don’t expect it to land on number 1 of my 2020 reading list. But page by page it threw me back to my youth. I came out as a gay man when I was about 20, in 1985. For as far as I remember I always fell for men, never had any issues in recognising that for myself, but telling that to the others is perhaps the biggest step. I am lucky that my mother (my father had died when I was a toddler) and everybody around me was supportive. Ever since, I have been who I am and being gay is only one of the many boxes that define me. Love the quote of Noreen Giffney above, which I discovered by coincidence last night.

The book was a flashback. To Reagan, rainbow flags, “the sauna disease”, the Names Project quilts, … to death. It is strange having your first sexual encounters and having to associate sex with death. With risk, unless you took protective measures. I remember, working as a journalist for one of Jan Van Rompaey’s talkshows, and how only one or two people were willing to speak out as being HIV-positive. Kudos for Patrick Reyntiens, who was one of them. He remains an activist till today. I couldn’t help but think of the famous Benetton ad that raised awareness around what society considered controversial. The book condensed to just this one image.

I have various friends who are HIV-positive and luckily a quarter of a century beyond 1985 they lead very happy lives. It’s a different era.

Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers, Penguin, 2019.

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