Remembrance: A Deserving Bit of Forgotten AIDS History
Sometimes the past overtakes you in a very personal way, and you regain something you never knew you’d lost.
A recent evening, reminiscing with a friend as I look through the year book for my high school senior year. The pictures and people seem as long ago and far away as anything out of the Star Wars movies—actually the real-life time frame is well over a decade earlier than the release of the first Star Wars movie in 1977—when I turn a page and come upon a photo of the members of the Creative Writing Club I belonged to that final year before I graduated and moved on to my college years. And lo! there I am standing between two other young men, the shorter (to the left) named John Lair, and the taller (to the right) named Bruce Karcher.
I had a history with both, but while I wasn’t surprised to see John in the photo, I had no recollection of Bruce attending the same high school, let alone being in any of my high school classes or clubs.
Let me describe this another way. John I remembered well. We palled around our senior year, not just because we were friends and in the same German and music classes, but because for a glorious few months he was my first boyfriend. Until the affair fell apart.
Bruce, on the other hand, I remembered from elementary school, especially sixth grade, where we had the same teacher and sat near each other in class for part of the year. I was obsessed by a jacket he wore and wanted one like it for myself. When I asked him where he had bought it, he answered from a men’s and boys’ clothing store his grandmother owned. It was located not far from my family’s home, so I talked my mother into taking me there, where I was told all the jackets like the one Bruce wore had been sold, and no more were expected in.
Looking at the year book photo, another memory jumped to mind: I was born and reared in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but for many decades now have lived in New York City. I’m a writer and journalist, and for several years in the 1990s wrote a monthly column titled Gay Arts Beat that appeared in various lesbian/gay publications around the country, among them the local Albuquerque lesbian/gay newspaper. During a trip back to New Mexico sometime during the 1990s, I had supper with the editor of that newspaper where for some reason the name of Bruce Karcher came up. Bruce, I was told, had been active in both the local gay and theater communities, but had died in 1989 of AIDS, which the editor described only as “a horrible, painful death” without offering any specific details.
So Bruce had been gay. Staring at the photo in the year book, I suddenly realized that if John had been my first boyfriend, Bruce had been my first crush. After all, how many straight boys eleven years old obsess about another boy’s clothes? It’s just that my awareness of being gay didn’t happen until a year later, when I was twelve and hitting adolescence. One year I’m focusing on an attractive boy’s clothes, the next I’m focusing on attractive boys. I had many crushes in seventh grade.
So I decided to research Bruce to see what I could find out about his life and his death.
One of my journalism tools is a subscription to newspapers.com, an online research archive that gives one access to the back issues of thousands of newspapers in the United States and Western Europe. So I visited the site, typing in the name Albuquerque Journal, along with Bruce’s last and first names (in that order), the word “Obituary,” and the year 1989. And there it was on page 37 of the June 6, 1989, issue. In part the obituary read:
KARCHER—Bruce Henry Karcher died on Monday, June 5, 1989 after two and one-half years of love and productivity following his diagnosis with AIDS. Bruce wished to take this final opportunity to affirm two things: his satisfaction and pride in having been born, lived and died as a gay man in this time and secondly, his deep love and appreciation for his mother and the many wonderful members of his extended, chosen family who have been there with unconditional love and support throughout his life, but most especially after his diagnosis with AIDS. . . .
Several phrases in the above bear repeating: “his satisfaction and pride in having been born, lived and died as a gay man in this time” . . . “his deep love and appreciation for his mother and the many wonderful members of his extended, chosen family who have been there with unconditional love and support throughout his life, but most especially after his diagnosis with AIDS. . . .” In a time when gay men, especially those living with AIDS, were feared, vilified, and demonized by many during the darkest time of the medical crisis, Bruce was a very lucky man, and clearly he knew how to appreciate the love he received during his illness and give it back in the form of a very lovely acknowledgment in his obituary.
Since visiting my year book and realizing that Bruce was a classmate of mine in high school, I’ve asked myself why I didn’t remember him when we were in the same Creative Writing Club for an entire year, when he was even standing next to me in a photo of the club members. Well, I don’t recall having any classes with him during those years, so perhaps our paths crossed nowhere else but that club during my senior year. Then, too, there was my affair that year with John Lair—the other young man standing beside me in the photo. I was probably too besotted by John to notice anyone from my (what seemed at the time) distant past who simply pulled no emotional weight with me any longer.
Still, the mysteries of my psyche aside, it’s great to be able to salute here someone who in my eyes was through his courage and pride one of the lesser-known heroes of a very dark time.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.