Guilt-Free Memories

Buried in our grief, little gems of pain-free memories

by Hank Trout

Photo © Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover Photography. All rights reserved
Photo © Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover Photography. All rights reserved

In May 2016, I met photographers Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover when they exhibited at a dinner hosted by Project Open Hand in celebration of San Francisco’s long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS. I read “Stella,” my tribute to my best friend lost to AIDS. We chatted after my reading, and a couple weeks later, Saul contacted me about an upcoming Pride Month exhibit at the Harvey Milk Photography Center called “LGBTQ+Chronicled: 1933–2016,” featuring Saul’s and Sandra’s photography and others’. Saul asked me if I would like to write an essay about living in San Francisco in the 1980s and ’90s and read it at the exhibit’s opening. As a thirty-six-year resident of San Francisco, of course I leapt at the opportunity.

Then I talked with Dave Christensen, the Director of the HMPC who curated the exhibit. Dave told me that he admired my writing for A&U and looked forward to reading what I could write for the opening ceremony. He advised me that he wanted the ceremony to be a celebration—and admonished me that whatever I wrote, I should “keep it upbeat.”

Upbeat? I thought. Upbeat?? You want me to write something upbeat about the 1980s and ’90s in San Francisco?! Were you here in the ’80s and ’90s?!

Write something “upbeat” about a time when dozens of my friends suffered and died unspeakably painful deaths? When our government ignored our pleas for help, when religious leaders condemned us as “deserving” AIDS, when everyone I knew lived in terror of losing their lives to a fucking virus? Upbeat?! My excitement quickly soured into How the hell am I gonna pull this off?

Erasing the grief from my memories seemed as difficult, and as pointless, as bowdlerizing some of the hardcore porn I’ve written. There would be nothing left.

But I set to work mining my experiences during the ’80s and ’90s for any rock that I could polish into “upbeat” memories to write about. And to my surprise, I found them. Quite a few of them, actually. Buried in the muck and mire of all the grief and chaos that nearly buried my community, I found nuggets of hope and even beauty. The problem remained…. Write about the hours of cathartic mindless fun we had dancing at the Trocadero Transfer without mourning the loss of my favorite dance partner Jim “Stella” Duquette? Celebrate the birth of Gay Comedy here and not cry about the death of sweet lovely comedian Danny Williams? Recall disco diva Sylvester and keyboard wizard David Kelsey and artist Ken Wood without sobbing at their ugly untimely deaths?

How could I bowdlerize my memories?

With a lot of self-censoring—No! don’t think about that right now!—I wrote the essay and kept it genuinely upbeat. Well, ninety-five percent upbeat. The essay acknowledged, briefly, the epidemic, but then celebrated the relationships we nurtured, the art we created, and even the fun we had despite…it all.

Remaining upbeat at the reading, however, was difficult. I read exactly one week after the Orlando Pulse massacre. I acknowledged that we were all probably thinking about, had been thinking about those forty-nine young beautiful people, and then began reading.

As I read the essay, I noticed that my friends and the other men and women in the crowd who were close to my age and remembered San Francisco in the 1980s and ’90s were all smiling. Some giggled with an embarrassed oh gawd I had forgotten that smile when I mentioned the Bulldog Baths. Others smiled broadly, nodded along, lost in their own reveries of Sunday tea-dances at the I-Beam. Still others laughed remembering the first time they met The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on Castro Street. Smiles of shared gratitude spread as I acknowledged the courageous women of San Francisco who led the fight against AIDS here.

I saw people allowing themselves to relish, guilt-free and pain-free, memories that brought them bone-deep happiness. And if I’m not mistaken, I do believe I saw some genuine healing going on in some of those smiles.

And then it hit me—Yes! This is exactly what we need! This is important! We need to remember that in the midst of all the grief and sorrow and terror of the worst years of the pandemic, we did a lot of amazing things! And we continue to do them.

I realized how important it is—how necessary it is—that we remember and commemorate not only the deaths and the loss during the worst years of the pandemic but also the things that we accomplished by coming together to take care of each other, the sometimes glorious art we created, and yeah even the frivolous-but-cathartic fun we allowed ourselves. For many, survivor’s guilt buried those memories, as if acknowledging those memories somehow dishonored those we lost.

I too had allowed my own grief to bury many of the memories that, now, I am very happy to have unearthed in order to write about them. Sharing those memories with others, I saw that it’s not just okay to mine our memories for those nuggets buried in the muck and to polish them up and celebrate them—it’s healing; it’s necessary. We all deserve to treasure, to nurture, and to share pain-free, guilt-free memories.

Hank Trout edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-six-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.