Between Certain Death and a Possible Future:
Queer Writing on Growing Up with the AIDS Crisis
Edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Arsenal Pulp Press

Reviewed by Hank Trout

Between Certain Death and a Possible Future seeks to bridge a gap in AIDS-related literature. We are all familiar with the works written by women and men who lived with HIV/AIDS or cared for others during the eighties and early nineties, and we’ve begun to see work by younger queer writers about growing up in an era of HAART treatment and PrEP prevention.

But, the book asks, what about those LGBTQ people who came of age and came out during the height of the AIDS crisis? Where are the voices of those young queer folx who came out in an era when prevailing thought held that “sex = death,” whose coming out should have been joyous but instead was tempered with existential fear?

Sycamore, the editor of this compilation, states in her introduction, “[T]here is another generation…one that came of age in the midst of the epidemic with the belief that desire intrinsically led to death, internalizing this trauma as part of becoming queer.” The thirty-six personal essays she has collected from writers of that generation come from diverse perspectives and are filled with fear, grief, and loss, of course; but they also contain great empathy, sharp analysis, and even humor, as the writers confront the ongoing impact of the AIDS pandemic.

Bryan M. Holdman writes lovingly in “Surviving My Cousin” about growing up with, and losing, his cousin Demetrius, as the two young Black gay men grew up with an abusive stepfather; after Dee is thrown out of the house, he acquires HIV and before long dies. Holdman writes, “I’ll always be asking myself the same questions: Why am I here? Why isn’t he?”

In “Hockey Night in Canada,” Berend McKenzie describes a harrowing scene from 1994: his friend Billy is lying on his death bed in the living room; Billy’s gay friends sit in the dining room, holding vigil, assisting Billy’s caregiver; his mother, father, and brother, the family who kicked Billy out of the house when he came out but have suddenly reappeared now that their son is dying (an event familiar to many of us). They sit watching the Canucks in the Stanley Cup finals; their response to their son’s moaning and groaning is to turn up the television to drown him out. Billy dies just as the Canucks lose. At that moment, Billy’s father turns off the television and says to Billy’s gay friends, “The Canucks were always a bunch of wimpy faggots.”

Writing of his generation in “To Say Good-Bye,” Andrew R. Spieldenner writes, “My capacity for friendship and intimacy emerged in the context of a dying generation. We learned how to attend funerals, to accept that some relationships go unresolved, and to say good-bye.” That might serve as a summation of the essays in this book.

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-one-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick.