Revisit the Past—Just Don’t Wallow in It

Revisit the Past
Just Don’t Wallow in It
by Hank Trout

As I sat in the sun in my wheelchair earlier, plotting what I was going to say in this month’s column, I realized that for the last month or so, I’ve been “living in the past,” almost buried in it. This trip down the ole memory highway started with some personal experiences and intensified with activities going on around me and the subjects I’ve been writing about. Nostalgia can be fun. Or it can be debilitating.

There’s a fine line between revisiting the past and wallowing in it.

This trip down the rabbit hole of nostalgia began when I remembered that August 23, 2019, is the thirty-ninth anniversary of my moving to San Francisco. It’s easy to remember that date—it was also my mother’s birthday. Thinking about life in San Francisco in the 1980s is fun—until I get to 1982 or so. In 1982, the sense of freedom and liberation and love that I had sought and found in San Francisco quickly turned to terror and grief and distrust that dragged into the next decade. I find it too easy, sometimes, to wallow in those memories of Dean and Stella, of bedpans and I.V. tubes and memorial services.

Fortunately, there was a bigger celebration going on this summer to distract me. “Stonewall 50” was as huge and boisterous a celebration here as anywhere. Plus, many of my friends were stars of this year’s parade—San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s Vince Crisostomo, the Program Director at the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network [A&U, September 2016] and David Faulk, aka Mrs. Vera of Versasphere [A&U, March 2017] were both community-chosen Grand Marshals of the Parade. Several other long-term HIV survivor friends marched with Shanti or the SF AIDS Foundation. Even though I have returned to using a wheelchair, this time for good with an inoperable compression fracture in my spine and a cracked pelvis, I was determined to attend and cheer them on. With my fiancé Rick’s steadfast help—and with a year’s experience maneuvering the chair behind us—we made it to Pride this year! And I am glad we did. It was inspiring to know so many women and men, my friends, all my age or nearing it, most of them HIV survivors like me, marching in joy and pride on a perfect day. And yes, of course, I thought occasionally of friends with whom I terrorized the Earthlings in our younger days, especially those, nearly all, who are dead.

Before the Parade, on June 22, the Harvey Milk Photo Center opened its annual Art & Pride exhibition, entitled “Stonewall 50.” When David Christensen, the Center’s Director and curator of the show, asked me to write something to read on opening night and told me the theme of the exhibit, I knew immediately what I wanted to write—“Stonewall 50 & Before,” a look back at the 1969 uprising and beyond to the smaller but significant “riots” that preceded Stonewall. The subject required research. That meant again digging into the past and reacquainting myself with Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera and the nameless transgender women, drag queens, street punks and gay boys who fought back against the police in 1959 at Cooper’s Do-Nuts in Los Angeles and in 1966 at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco. The reading was well-received, and I am grateful for that. But when you dig through the past, it’s difficult to dig through only part of the past. Joy and Pride, fear and exhaustion, all live together.

As part of the Art & Pride exhibit, David had printed and framed my poem “Tornado” [A&U, January 2016]. Several times during the opening night gala, I parked my chair in an inconspicuous spot to watch people react to this piece of writing hanging with all the photographs and paintings. I observed that most of the people who walked up to the piece, stood there, drink in hand, and read the entire long poem. Some of them wiped tears from their cheeks as they walked away. I think that’s the best review my writing has ever gotten.

At the same time, seeing readers’ reactions to “Tornado” reminded me of the anguish and pain of the times I had written about. And back down the hole we head.

If revisiting the past for a while is rather painful, crowded with memories of loss and fear and anger and frustration, that’s good—those memories are your gift for having survived the plague. It’s a miraculous thing that we long-term HIV survivors still have memories, bad or good. Cherish them, revisit them, but don’t wallow in them. It’s bad for the posture.

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