AIDS, death and trust

San Francisco newspaper the Bay Area Reporter has just put online all the obituaries it has published since 1979 – in other words, since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The database is searchable by date range or name.

Early on there are just a couple of obituaries a month, sometimes not even that, but the numbers soon swell rapidly. What makes the greatest impact however is not how sadly numerous the memorials become, but how individual they remain – a reminder, if we needed one, of the individual lives which were ended so prematurely. These were not statistics, but real people with real achievements, quirks, foibles and friends.

For example, Martin Cox, whose obituary appeared on the 21 February 1985, died on the “eve of Valentine’s Day” and “will be remembered for his kindness and concern by the victims of the Folsom Street fire, whose tragedy he tried to ease.” I hope he is indeed remembered by somebody.

Gregory J. Guerin (28 May 1987) was “best known as Chi-Chi, when he worked at Without Reservations on Castro Street”.

As for Harold Gates (31 October 1991): “You had to notice Harold on the dance floor or the gym (he wouldn’t have it any other way!)”.

Interestingly – at least to me, of all the obituaries i read, the one that made the most impression concerns a dead man who is not – on the whole – remembered fondly. Ray Broshears, whose obituary appeared on the 14 January 1982, seems to have been a troubled soul: driven to help and to hinder the gay community at the same time. He is described as

“taking food and clothing to jail prisoners, advising male prostitutes, assisting transsexuals who were on the fringes of the Gay community, treating people to lunch, and always helping the elderly”

yet he seems to have made enemies more easily than friends. One person even goes so far as to say: “I am glad he is dead now” and many of the other responses to Broshears’ death are not much more positive. Why did someone who evidently wanted to do good end up alienating so many people and to such an extent? A psychologist, who was interviewed for the obituary, suggests:

“He had difficulty in expressing his love. Expressing love has to do with trust… I don’t think Ray ever trusted anybody – including himself.”

This rings terribly true to me and i think that’s what makes this story even sadder than the rest. So many men died too young, but at least most of them were able to know and express love before they died. Is there anything more important? Let the world take almost anything from you, but don’t let it take away your ability to trust.

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