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.

My perfect museum: ‘A living house’

This morning on the way to work i found myself thinking about museums: why they are always unsatisfactory and what they ought to be like. In my notebook i wrote: “A living house: 1940s”. What did i mean by that?


You begin out on the street looking at the house from the front. What you see as you look through the windows is a modern-day home in the midst of every day life. It’s film footage: the windows are screens, though this isn’t apparent. Likewise, the faint sounds you hear from within are recordings.

You meet your guide – incapable of speech it seems – who ushers you into an adjacent house. Here the windows are blacked out, front and back, and the building is soundproofed. Looking around, you see you are in a waiting room: nondescript and devoid of anything but chairs (along the walls); and a great clock, which ticks, yet whose hands do not move. A bare bulb flickers uncertainly. The guide motions you to be seated and disappears through a door which locks behind them. There are no other doors. You wait.

Your guide returns. Now he or she is dressed in the fashions of the forties. You are led through a door that had been concealed from you: down into the cellar and along a tunnel. When you emerge at the other end you are at the bottom of the garden – a long garden with high walls – of the house through whose front windows you had earlier gazed. Washing is on the line. Voices can be heard indoors.

You enter through the back door, straight into the kitchen. This is no longer a modern house; the furnishings, all the contents, belong to the 1940s – or earlier still of course. What do you see? Maybe a table with butter and other ingredients laid upon it – as though someone had stepped out partway through baking a pie. Or perhaps the table is set for tea. You must smell it too: reality always has an odour. You must also touch it. There can be no ropes draped around the scene, sealing you off from it. Go on… pick up the fork, taste the butter if you want and place your hand against the side of the kettle – you may be startled to find it’s still warm. All the rooms are like this; each contains a tableau suggesting life in motion, arrested only upon your entry. Whichever room you are in you hear sounds from one or more of the others: a wireless; the voices of people discussing the war; laughter; rows. But as you turn the handle of the door, that room falls silent.

In the front room you go over to the window and when you look out you see the road – the very one in which you’d stood earlier, gazing across at this room; but this time you see it as it looked then. It’s quiet and still, there is no-one around. When you look from the upstairs windows the scene is still that of the past, but now there are people going about their business. The guide – how long have they been there? – is standing behind you, watching you watching. You’re led across the landing into the back bedroom. Through the window you see a woman come out to remove the washing.

Suddenly, you hear the sound of air raid sirens… BANG!!! The house is felt to shudder slightly. The lights go out. The guide produces a candle, lights it, and leads you out of the room and down the stairs. More explosions can be heard, thankfully this time at a distance. On the ground floor you smell burning and, glancing through the downstairs windows as you leave, you can see the house across the road has been hit. Sometimes you may hear the sound of a woman crying.

The guide leads you back down the garden path. The washing is gone from the line.

Back into the tunnel you go and into the waiting room. The bulb has failed. Ushering you through the darkness the guide points urgently at the door. You emerge and find yourself back on the road, which is just as you left it. As you pass the house the people inside are watching TV.


Ideally, there would be multiple scenarios, for different parts of the day – and perhaps for different days of the week: so there wouldn’t always be a bombing for example. One thing i wouldn’t have is live actors. Seen close up modern day people never convince as citizens of the past: too big, too brash, too obvious that they know how the story will turn out.

In any case, the key is the house.