When I first heard last year that my alma mater—West Virginia University, in Morgantown—had opened a new LGBTQ+ Center, I must admit, I was quite skeptical. After all, when I attended WVU in the 1970s—BA 1974; MA 1977—I did not even meet another gay person on campus until my second year in graduate school! Of course things and times change—there are 45,000 students at WVU now, compared to 25,000 when I attended—but the idea of an LGBTQ center in WV was still simply unimaginable to me. Monongalia County, home to Morgantown and WVU, which has long been a progressive “oasis” in the Red Desert of Republican West Virginia, voted fifty-eight percent for the Republican ticket in 2016. The idea of an LGBTQ center in that deeply red environment struck me as foolhardy at best, dangerous at worst.
Besides, I was born and reared in Morgantown in the 1950s, came of age there in the 1960s, was educated there in the 1970s. I remember exactly how repressive and violent the area was to anyone who dared to reach beyond the region’s strictures and expectations. I was called a “conceited faggot” and beaten up for it long before I understood the meaning of either word. Since moving away in 1978, returning to WV only during times of great family trauma (illnesses, funerals), I had relegated Morgantown and all those years I spent there to the best-forgotten-about past.
Thus, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I accepted the WVU LGBTQ+ Center’s invitation to visit for a week this past April in my capacity as a WVU alumnus, as a writer for this magazine, and as a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor. The Prodigal Queer Writer Returns! The possibilities seemed boundless, exciting!—but daunting. Throughout making plans for lectures, recitals, and writing workshops, I wondered, Will anyone care?! Will anyone want to listen to this old queer talk about being a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor?
To be honest, I had doubts that I could communicate across such an age difference. For one thing, I hadn’t stood in front of a classroom in forty years, not since I was a teaching assistant while a grad student at WVU. Standing in front of a classroom to deliver a lecture or conduct a writing workshop after that long an absence could be disastrous! Also, I’ve not had much other opportunity to talk with young queer folks—my “social circle” is filled with other curmudgeons like me; I’m not used to talking with people who are young enough to be my grandchildren! (Now there’s a thought to terrify the masses!) Cleve Jones [A&U, January 2017] recently pointed out that when young queer folks listen to men like him and me talk about the AIDS crisis, the experience for them is very much like Cleve and me listening to our parents or grandparents talk about the Great Depression or World War II—the events of the AIDS crisis are that far removed from young people today. Will anyone care? clouded my anticipation frequently.
I needn’t have worried so much.
If the students I met at the WVU LGBTQ+ Center earlier this month are any indication—and I believe they probably are as typical as any—then, the kids are indeed alright. The students I met are engaged, curious, and eager to learn the history of their Tribe. They were attentive to my stories about marches and rallies and the fights that we queer folks have waged in the last forty years and longer. They asked intelligent, probing questions that sometimes challenged this old know-it-all geezer!
Most impressive to me, as a long-term survivor, was the level of empathy the students showed when we talked about the AIDS crisis and what it means to have survived the Plague Years. During a Q&A session after we screened Last Men Standing [A&U, May 2016], several students fought back tears as they asked questions about the eight men in the film and about my experiences. They seemed to realize that although they might never fully understand the unspeakable grief that the AIDS Generation has endured, they sincerely want to understand it, to avoid repeating it. They shudder at tales of how we were shunned and stigmatized; they cry tears of pride at how we came together to care for each other, how we fought for each other. And they seem genuinely hungry for the stories we Elders in the Tribe, especially us long-term survivors, can share with them.
“Thank you for helping us to understand how important our narratives are,” one wrote me afterward.
No homecoming was ever so sweet before.
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-seven-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.