***Note – I actually wrote this post in 2015 but thru some sort of typo it got scheduled for 2016.***
World AIDS Day has a special meaning to many of us in the LGBT community. If you are over the age of 40, it is extremely unlikely you haven’t personally lost at least 1 friend or loved one to AIDS. While it is more of a chronic illness in western culture these days, it is still incurable and people are still dying. While I lost several friends over the years, two were very close to my heart and I use this day to fondly remember said individuals. Today I want to talk about Damien.
Damien was the manager of the Club Houston.1 I happened to meet him at a very rough time in my life. The first time meeting him left me a bit rattled actually. I was still young and very naive at the time. And while I’ve always been able to put on a good poker face, I was very intimidated by him. He was this rather imposing figure. He carried himself w/a bit of what I referred to then as arrogance. It helped his image that he was tall and lean. He had long curly hair, of which he he was very fond. He had a reputation for being very strict and frankly, being a bitch. As I would discover later, it was all a cover. He was actually quite kind and generous. He just had a really low tolerance for drama.
For myself, I was struggling to not be homeless at the time and ended up working at the Club for money on weekends. I’d come in and do the weekend bbq and they paid cash. Considering I was sleeping in my car at the time, I wasn’t in a position to refuse. Being funny and social, I quickly went from just weekend work to weekday work on a full-time schedule. Damien quickly fell in love with me (as a friend and mentor). One, I was a hard worker2 but that just served to get his attention. He loved me because, as he put it, “I was the nelliest funniest queen he’d ever met” For you long timer readers, you’ll remember I turned myself into a stereotype back then because I thought that’s what I had to be to gain acceptance. And truth be told, you would not have even recognize me then. But he loved me because I was so fiercely “out.” Anyway, back on topic.
After a little while, word filtered back to him regarding my situation and my routine unofficial overnight hangouts became a sanctioned activity. Employees were allowed to use the ‘gym’ for free. hehehe It was a huge burden lifted for me. A couple of the employees didn’t like me because they knew I’d rat their lazy asses out if they got high and slacked off while on duty. Said slacking meant more work for me. They would routinely kick me out after my time limit expired at night. This left me on the street anywhere from 4-6 hours in the late night/early mornings. The police were not friendly and the neighborhood wasn’t overly safe so I’d drive to a nicer area of town and park in well-lit areas. Anyway, what very few people knew at the time is he also helped me behind the scenes as well. I was the beneficiary of a monthly “employee of the month” program that seemed to only exist for my benefit. Said program paid extra cash to the winner. Damien grew to trust me a lot and was also a mentor to me. Having been thru some of life’s harsher roads before me, he would often share pearls of hard earned wisdom with me.
After a year or so, I moved on. While I had no shame in working there, I didn’t intend to stay that way. I’ve always been a quick study and any time life presents an opportunity I take it. I continued working and finding better jobs to better myself. Damien and I stayed in touch and I’d routinely lend a hand if he asked. An employee would get fired or just disappear and he’d call me for a quick shift. I was glad to help someone who helped me.
When Damien got sick, I was living in Boulder, CO. I caught a flight back as soon as I could and got back in time. It is a surreal experience to see the life and health leave someone you know. Gone was the vibrant man I knew. In his place was the decaying shell of a human being. In a word, it was ghastly. I loved this kindred soul and it broke me in so many little ways to see him reduced to this. When he passed away, I promised I’d never let myself die that way. I’d never let anything reduce me to such a state. (Kids say the craziest things when we think we are invincible)
[This part is new since I wrote this.] So today, I celebrate his life. He wouldn’t want me to be sad or down. He would want me to be fierce and alive. So in his honor, I celebrate the life of all of those we’ve lost due to AIDS. I celebrate the life of those who still live with AIDS. I celebrate their courage in the fight to live. I celebrate the new treatments and drugs available to everyone. Besides treatment drugs we also have PrEP now.3 PrEP is changing the landscape of treatment and transmission.
I celebrate the kindred soul that touched my mine and helped me on my own path.
Hope springs eternal…