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SUMMARY: What if you were homosexual but refused to admit it to anyone, especially yourself? The year is 1971 and fourteen year old Jimmy Barnes has discovered growing up in a small town can be boring in a way not even the solitary masturbation sessions he enjoys so much can relieve. When his best friend takes a job at the local newspaper, Jimmy finds himself on his own for the summer. What follows is a decade long saga with numerous twists and turns, a tale that’ll reveal the best and the worst of the nineteen-seventies and beyond.
WARNING: This story is a work of adult fiction and intended for mature audiences only. Unless otherwise noted, all of the characters in the story are fictional; any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. While some of the places described or mentioned in the story are fictional as well, others may be real. However, some liberties may have been taken with the truth to enhance the story. Please note that the story may describe, depict or otherwise include graphic portrayals of relationships between men and/or adolescent boys that are homosexual in nature. If you do not like For approve of such discussions or it is illegal for you to read such material, consider yourself warned. If you continue to read this story, you are asserting you are fully capable of understanding and legally consenting to reading a work of adult fiction.
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NOTES: Please check these notes every week. If there’s something I want to alert you to as I post each chapter, this is where I will I do so. January 13, 2017: I’ve gone back and forth about whether I should publish this epilogue, but finally decided to go forward with it. It’s narrated by Tommy. Thanks for reading the story.
That’s not where the story ended, of course, in Jeff’s townhouse on Christmas Day. Or perhaps I should say the stories because by now it was apparent to me there were multiple stories embedded within the Christmas carol I had written for Jimmy.
There was Jimmy’s story, the one that had pretty much written its ending when he died at the Georgetown Medical Center on Christmas Eve morning. Only a few details of his story remain to be told. It’s mainly a story about funerals.
There are the stories of the people whose lives Jimmy touched over the years, especially those he was closest to like Jeff, Leo and Mark. It would take a book to write all those stories, but that book would need to be written by someone like Jeff who knew the cast of characters better than me.
There were my stories as well, both the professional and personal ones. I’m not sure I’m the right person to tell those stories. It’s hard writing a story when you’re too close to it. And yet what happened on Christmas Eve and how that affected my life is hard to ignore.
But looming above all those stories was still another, the story of the disease itself, AIDS. So perhaps that’s the place to begin.
Like Dickens once said, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. To my surprise, a lot of newspapers picked up my story about Jimmy and that had generated a lot of discussion in the months that followed.
Even a year later on Christmas Eve a surprising number of papers, including the Post, ran the story again. For some it even became kind of a Christmas tradition for a few years until something better came along. I always felt humbled by that.
Not surprisingly, the story brought out the bigots and haters in droves; people too stupid to understand how much they discredited themselves every time they admitted they were happy Jimmy was dead and were only sorry Jeff was still alive.
In the end, it was their very self-righteousness that did them in. Say what you will, but most people don’t like hearing hate expressed so openly, so shamelessly. Indeed, to the extent they commented at all, most people who read the story were genuinely sympathetic and touched by the tale it told.
It turned out a surprising number of Americans had sons and brothers, cousins and uncles, sisters and daughters, and even fathers in some cases who were gay. And while people were never entirely anxious to talk about the black sheep in their families, they didn’t hate them either; at least most of them didn’t hate them most of the time.
Forced to confront the struggles their relatives experienced every day – the discrimination and bigotry, the torment and self-hatred, the horrific disease itself – the thought began to take hold among everyday Americans that maybe this was just the way people were born.
That being gay was not some character flaw or lifestyle that had somehow been chosen; that maybe, just maybe, there was nothing their sons and brothers, cousins and uncles, sisters and daughters, and, yes, even their fathers who were gay, could do about it.
It made people stop and wonder; to reflect that perhaps there but for the grace of God could have been my brother, my loved one.
The effect was neither immediate nor direct. Most people didn’t put down the paper they were reading and pick up the phone to call their member of Congress and demand action. But they started talking about it openly for the first time, not sweeping it under the rug and hoping it would somehow go away.
In time, as more and more people joined the conversation, they would start pushing back when they ran into the bigots and haters ranting about degenerates and perverts.
“I know someone who’s gay,” they would confess, “and he’s nothing at all like the person you’re talking about. You should shut up and mind your own business.”
Later, as the spread of AIDS gained momentum and still other cases arose that made it apparent just how unfair and cruel the disease could be, people began to worry about whether enough was being done. They would be shocked to learn that even someone as famous and well off as Rock Hudson could contract the disease but be unable to save himself.
They would be disgusted by the way Ryan White was treated when he asked to be allowed to attend school after testing HIV-positive as a result of a transfusion he needed as a hemophiliac. They would be repulsed even more when anonymous stories were spread that maybe, just maybe, Ryan wasn’t the sweet, innocent, boy everyone seemed to think.
“Enough,” they would shout, forcing those who spread rumors like that back into the sewers from which they had crawled.
Like I said, it didn’t happen immediately, but soon enough more and more people were demanding action from their government.
They were embarrassed their President, Ronald Reagan, the man who seemed so genuinely likeable, refused to recognize the public health disaster that was spreading rapidly across America; refused even to use the term AIDS publicly for fear of offending his political base.
Base was indeed the right word for Ronald Reagan’s behavior and for that of his cronies.
Americans were bothered by how a man they liked and admired could be so clueless and out of touch with a contagious disease his Administration had helped spread by refusing to lift a finger when it could have taken steps that would have helped curb its spread.
They began to wonder whether people were right when they suggested that a second-rate actor wasn’t up to the job they had entrusted him with. Eventually they would even boo him when he tried to take credit for the progress that was being made in the fight against AIDS, not because of the efforts of his Administration but in spite of it.
It would be a long story with many ups and downs, a continuing story that would seemingly disappear from time to time as the disease became more manageable, only to rear its ugly head again as people forgot the lessons that had been learned by earlier generations.
That story, the story of the disease itself, would remain an on-going one.
Closer to home, the editors of the Post approached me with a suggestion. Seeing the reaction to my story, they had quietly discussed whether the Post needed to assign someone full-time to the AIDS beat like the San Francisco Chronicle had. Initially there was resistance to the idea.
The Post was a national newspaper now after all; had been ever since Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward had broken the Watergate story. It wasn’t a newspaper where special interests got their own beat; at least that’s what some of the old hands at the paper argued.
In the end, the Post had come to recognize that AIDS was going to be a huge story for a very long time, indeed the nation’s number one public health menace; and having recognized that, they asked me whether I wanted to take on the beat.
I discussed it with a lot of people; fellow reporters like David Broder and Randy Shilts. Some cautioned me against taking the assignment.
You’re going to get pigeon-holed into a very narrow specialty they argued. To get ahead in journalism, you need to follow the traditional route and work your way up the ladder through stints on the local desk, the national desk, and finally the foreign desk.
That was the only sure way to reach the pinnacle of the profession they maintained.
Others disagreed. AIDS was a big story and it was going to be a big story for a very long time. Focusing on it would keep you from getting distracted by all the small, unimportant stuff that burdened so many journalistic careers.
And eventually there would be a book that would come out of it, no doubt about it. There would be a book that could go a long way toward establishing your reputation as a serious journalist; maybe even more than one book.
I asked Jeff what he thought I should do and what he thought was that it was a decision only I could make, but that he would support me either way. I appreciated that. I took the job and 1983 proved to be a busy year for me, one in which I covered a ton of AIDS-related stories.
On January 1, Ward 86, the world’s first dedicated AIDS outpatient clinic, opens at San Francisco General Hospital.
Three days later, on January 4, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) host a public meeting to identify opportunities for protecting the nation’s blood supply from AIDS. Participants fail to reach any consensus. Later, in March, the U.S. Public Health Service issues donor screening guidelines. Groups at high-risk for AIDS are told not to donate blood.
On January 7, the CDC reports the first cases of AIDS in the female partners of men infected with AIDS.
In February, the CDC establishes the National AIDS Hotline to respond to public inquiries about the disease. Also in February Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) publicly suggests that a retrovirus is probably responsible for causing AIDS.
In the March 4 edition of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the CDC notes that most cases of AIDS have been reported among homosexual men with multiple sexual partners, people who inject drugs, Haitians, and hemophiliacs. The report suggests that AIDS may be caused by an infectious agent that is transmitted sexually or through exposure to blood or blood products. It issues recommendations for preventing transmission.
On April 4, the Whitman Walker Clinic presents the first D.C. AIDS Forum at George Washington University. The forum, at which AIDS prevention information is distributed, is attended by 1,200 men. A second forum for people of color is held on September 28. Benefiting from Washington’s first AIDS fundraiser, which raises $4400, 1983 will also see the Clinic initiate a buddy program to help people living with AIDS, create an AIDS information hotline, and launch an HIV/AIDS prevention advertising campaign.
In May, the U.S. Congress passes the first bill that includes funding specifically targeted for AIDS research and treatment – $12 million for agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
On May 20 a team of doctors at the Pasteur Institute in France report the discovery of a retrovirus that could be the cause of AIDS. The team includes Luc Montagnier, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and others. The retrovirus, which had been isolated in January, would be called by several names, including LAV and HTLV-III, before being named HIV in 1986
In June, people living with AIDS, including Bobbi Campbell, take over the plenary stage at the Second National AIDS Forum and issue a statement that comes to be known as “The Denver Principles.” Demanding respect and a role in AIDS decision-making, the statement serves as the charter for the founding of the National Association of People with AIDS.
On July 25, San Francisco General Hospital opens Ward 5B, the first dedicated AIDS ward in the United States. Fully occupied within days, the ward offers compassionate, holistic care for AIDS patients. All staff in the ward from nurses to janitors volunteer to work there.
Beginning August 1, the House Intergovernmental Relations and Human Resources Subcommittee, chaired by Congressman Ted Weiss, holds two days of hearings on AIDS. AIDS activists Michael Callen of New York, Roger Lyon of San Francisco, and Anthony Ferrara of Washington testify on the second day.
On August 8, AIDS activist Bobbi Campbell appears with his partner, Bobby Hilliard, on the cover of Newsweek magazine for the story, “Gay America: Sex, Politics, and the Impact of AIDS.” It’s the first time two gay men are pictured embracing one another on the cover of a mainstream U.S. magazine.
On September 2, in response to concerns about the transmission of AIDS in healthcare settings, the CDC publishes the first set of occupational exposure precautions for healthcare workers and health professionals.
In the September 9 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC identifies all the major routes of HIV transmission – and rules out transmission by casual contact, food, water, air, or environmental surfaces.
On September 30, after a New York doctor is threatened with eviction from his building for treating AIDS patients, the state’s Attorney General and Lambda Legal file the first AIDS discrimination lawsuit in the United States. A New York court issues a preliminary injunction barring the eviction. Eventually the case is settled and the doctor is permitted to continue treating AIDS patients.
On November 22, the World Health Organization (WHO) holds its first meeting to assess the impact of AIDS globally and begins international surveillance. November also sees Dr. Robert Gallo’s lab grow the AIDS virus in immune system cells.
On December 6, the House Government Operations Committee releases the Federal Response to AIDS, which criticizes the U.S. Government for failure to invest sufficient funding in AIDS research and surveillance.
By the end of 1983 the number of AIDS patients in the United States has risen to 3064, of whom 1292 have died. Ronald Reagan has still not uttered the words AIDS in public. He will not do so until September 17, 1985. His first major speech on the subject comes on April 2, 1987.
So, yeah, for me as a journalist, it was the best of times. It was my break-through story, the one that established my credibility in the newsroom and across the profession.
At a more personal level, however, it was the worst of times. By the time I heard from Father Damien and got to the hospital, Jimmy was already gone. I never got a chance to say a final good-bye to my very best friend. That was devastating because I realized now how much I had loved Jimmy when we were younger; genuinely loved him.
And yet, devastated as I was, it was apparent Jeff was even more devastated than me. He was just sitting there alone in the hospital room when I arrived. They had already removed Jimmy’s body, but Jeff was somewhere else entirely. At some point early on I had come to realize just how much he loved Jimmy; and now Jimmy was gone and he didn’t have any idea what to do next.
Leo and Mark arrived shortly thereafter and finally I drove all of us back to Jeff’s townhouse on Capitol Hill. We stayed with him for the rest of the day as, first, Father Damien, then Ned Hilliard, and still later, as the word spread somehow like it always does, Jeff’s friends began to drop by to pay their respects; first Richard and Ronald and then all the rest of them, including Tim Ward , Susan Simon, and even Congressman Bresnahan.
As more and more arrived, it became apparent to me that many of them were spending Christmas alone, clinging to one another because they knew how unloved they were and didn’t want to make the long journey home in order to spend the holiday with parents and other people who didn’t really understand them or the struggles they endured every day.
But on this day, Christmas Eve, they came to comfort one of their own, someone they liked and admired and knew needed to be comforted in his hour of need.
Not everyone was there, of course. There were some, still not out to their families, who made the obligatory journey home for Christmas. They would come by to see Jeff later as they returned to Washington and learned what had happened.
By the evening things had somehow returned to normal. After Leo and Mark left, it was just the two of us, Jeff and me. When he asked whether I would stay the evening because he couldn’t bear the thought of being alone in the house without Jimmy, I had concealed my panic and told him I would.
What is he asking, Tommy? I recall wondering.
Does he want you to stay with him in his bed; to sleep with him like Jimmy has been sleeping with him all this time?
Or does he just want you to be around so that someone will be here when he wakes up in the morning and Jimmy isn’t there beside him in bed?
Soon enough his meaning became clear when he led me up to the bedroom Jimmy occasionally used and told me I was welcome to sleep there. Watching him retreat up the stairs to the top floor of his home triggered still another reflection.
Was I happy or sad I would be sleeping alone that evening?
Reconnecting with Jimmy and Jeff months earlier had finally helped me to recognize I was gay; that I had been gay since the day I was born and had hidden it all these years, primarily because of the fears my older brother Kevin had stirred up in me just as I entered puberty.
He never formally acknowledged it, but I had known for years Kevin was gay. When I was younger, however, I hadn’t realized just how much he was struggling with the issue himself.
Like most boys growing up back then, he didn’t want to be different. He wanted to be the same as all the rest of the boys; and he had done his best to be the same, even going so far as to denounce those he thought might be different.
He never understood just how much damage all the self-hatred he was experiencing was doing to him and to those he targeted. Or the toll it was taking on me, of course.
Kevin was my older brother. Although he had many faults, I loved him. When I was very young I wanted to be just like him. Later on I wanted to be like Jimmy, popular and fun-loving. I wanted to be Jimmy, not the serious boy with the glasses who was always worrying about something; worrying perhaps most of all about whether my physical attraction to Jimmy made me a homosexual.
So, yeah, now years later I recognized I was gay and by now I had seen and heard plenty about both the good and the bad that came with that territory. I had seen the devastation AIDS had wreaked on Jimmy and, in a different but no less horrific way, on Jeff as well.
And yet I had seen their love too and that made me wonder whether I would ever experience something like that myself.
I wanted to. I no longer had any doubt about that. But what did being gay and wanting to love and be loved mean in the age of AIDS?
Would I ever be able to experience the intimacy Jimmy and Jeff had shared; the unbridled passion and lust that had brought them together initially? And then, still later, the profound love they had shared?
It seemed like the door to love had closed on me forever and that terrified me. I no longer wanted to be alone.
Beyond all of that there was the question of exactly what I felt about Jeff, of course.
Jimmy had been the one who had forced me to confront that. We had been sitting there one day alone at the townhouse, just the two of us, when he said it.
“He likes you, Tommy; you know that, don’t you?”
“Who?” I asked. “Who likes me, Jimmy?”
“Jeff, you doofus,” he replied, grinning at me. “Who else do you think I meant? Jeff admires you. He likes how good you are with words; how you can put words together that move people and make a difference with your readers. He wants to make a difference himself and just knowing how much difference you’re making with your stories would make him like you. But it goes beyond that.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, again, curious.
“He’s attracted to you, Tommy,” Jimmy replied. “He likes you sexually, but he would never say that to you or even admit it to himself. Partly that’s because he doesn’t know you’re gay; and even if he did know, he wouldn’t think you’re attracted to him. But I know, Tommy. More importantly, you know too, don’t you?”
“Know what?” I asked, refusing to concede what I already knew; that Jimmy was right.
“I know you’re gay, Tommy,” he said, calmly. “I didn’t know that when we were younger, just like you didn’t know I was gay back then either. That’s a shame. We could have had so much fun together back then, don’t you think?”
“Maybe,” I said, conceding my first line of defense. “I mean, back then I was so afraid you would hate me, that Kevin would hate me, if I ever . . .”
“Tell me about it,” Jimmy said, sighing. “But that was then. This is now, Tommy. I’ve seen how you look at Jeff, how much you admire him. The two of you are alike in so many ways. You would be perfect together. Believe me; I’m not as smart as you or Jeff in most ways, but I know what I’m talking about when it comes to this.”
“I do like, Jeff,” I conceded. “But even if you’re right and there’s more to it than just admiring him for how committed and passionate he is, he loves you, Jimmy; not me.”
“He does,” Jimmy replied. “And I’m sorry I realized that so late. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you as well. He does. Like you, he just doesn’t know it yet. He won’t know how much he loves you until I’m gone; and then, once he knows and can begin to let go, I’m not sure either of you will have the courage to admit it to one another.”
Thinking back on it, I realized Jimmy was right. I did love, Jeff. It was just hard to believe he could ever love me in the same way. And what do you say to someone you love who has just lost the person he loves more than anyone else in the world?
Even if I wanted to tell Jeff I loved him, when would be the right time to do that? It certainly wasn’t now. What Jeff needed now was someone to lean on; to help him get through the next couple of days and do all the things that needed to be done to get Jimmy buried.
So that’s what I did. I stayed the evening in the room that had been Jimmy’s, the room he had never spent very much time in. I tossed and turned as I listened to the crying coming from the room above, wondering whether I should go up and try to comfort Jeff or just leave him alone to mourn in private.
In the end, I didn’t go up and at some point I must have fallen asleep. The next thing I recall was hearing Jeff sobbing, but this time the sounds were coming from somewhere below. Walking down the stairs, I could see he had retrieved the Post from his doorstep and assumed he had been reading my story.
“It’s going to be okay, Jeff,” I said walking over to him. “We’ll get through this together somehow.”
And that’s what we did. Somehow we got through Christmas day and then the next day we put the finishing touches on all the small details required to get someone buried. Jimmy hadn’t wanted to be waked. All he wanted was a small service led by Father Damien where Jeff’s friends could comfort him.
We held a simple service in Washington where we tried to comfort Jeff. But it was Jeff who comforted us in the end. His eulogy brought tears to the eyes of everyone. Then the two of us made our way to the airport and flew to Albany where we were met by one of Congressman Bresnahan’s district staffers.
He drove us to North Adams where the Congressman himself met us. I was glad to see him there because I knew by now how much Jimmy’s father hated Jeff. He was convinced Jimmy was dead because Jeff had led him astray. But seeing me with Jeff and the Congressman, he had grit his teeth and not gone off on a tantrum like I expected him to.
I carried most of the conversation that afternoon; and then the next day Jimmy’s mother and father and the rest of us had gone to the Southview cemetery and laid Jimmy to rest.
We didn’t hang around North Adams after that. We drove back to Albany immediately with the Congressman. Then the three of us caught a flight back to Washington. That part of the story was over and done.
Jimmy was finally at peace.
In the weeks that followed I tried to be there for Jeff as best I could. I would spend the weekends at his place in the bedroom that had been Jimmy’s and we would talk about Jimmy and what needed to be done to get the Federal government more engaged in the fight against AIDS.
It would be a long fight, a difficult one. Both of us knew it. It wouldn’t come easy, not with a clueless President who was supported by ideologues who secretly took delight in the unfolding holocaust; at least until they finally began to realize the American people had turned against them.
Hypocritical and pragmatic as always, they bowed to the shifting tides of public opinion and tried to take credit for everything that was being done. There was no shame in Ronald Reagan or those who worked for the man and had stood by while the holocaust unfolded.
But all of that would happen later. For now Jeff and I just talked about what needed to be done. And then one Saturday evening as we climbed the stairs, I turned around at the door that led into Jimmy’s room.
“I was wondering, Jeff, whether, uh, whether . . . I mean, I was wondering whether I could spend the evening with you?”
He looked at me, surprised.
So I told him what Jimmy had told me before he died.
“Jimmy told you all that?” he asked, still stunned and surprised when I finished.
“He did,” I replied. “But if he was wrong and you don’t have any feelings for me, you should be honest about it. I’ll understand. I told Jimmy he was wrong at the time, but he kept insisting you liked me.”
“That’s unbelievable,” Jeff replied. “He told me exactly the same thing. I mean, our conversation was almost identical to the conversation you just described. Jimmy told me you liked me and I would recognize I liked you as well someday. Do you believe it?”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “Knowing Jimmy, I believe he’d do something like that. In fact he’s probably looking down from Heaven right now and rolling his eyes and saying something like would you guys quit with all the talking and just get on with it for crying out loud.”
“I hope so,” Jeff said. “And, yes, I would love for you to spend the evening with me, Tommy.”
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