How To Survive Thanksgiving
November 20th, 2012
How To Survive Thanksgiving: The Romance of AIDS Activist Peter Staley
“Go hang your dreams on the hangin’ tree
Your dreams of love that could never be
Hang your faded dreams on the hangin’ tree”
Marty Robbins, “The Hanging Tree”
In the summer of 1985, Rock Hudson and Peter Staley both happened to be in Europe. Rock was lying, and dying, in a hospital in France, receiving an experimental treatment for AIDS, at the tail end of his closeted gay life. Peter, 24 years old and already a successful bond trader on Wall Street was also closeted, back in his real life, back in New York, but that summer he was walking along the canals of Amsterdam, holding hands and falling in love for the first time with a beautiful Dutch boy also named Peter. In late July, the story of Rock’s declining health due to AIDS would break as Doris Day aired Rock’s last television appearance with her, showing a stumbling, confused, very ill actor; in August, People magazine ran a story about Rock, quoting sympathetic friends who talked openly, for the first time, about Rock being gay. It’s safe to say that before Rock Hudson died the words “gay” and “AIDS” were not often on the national radar; it’s safe to say that no shadow hung over Peter’s romance that summer in Amsterdam. Arriving back in New York, however, everything was about to change.
That October, two months after Rock’s story broke in the U.S., he was dead, and a couple weeks later, in early November of 1985, Peter was at the airport to pick up his very own Danny Zuko, his summer boyfriend from Amsterdam who still remembers it as if it were yesterday: “he was at the airport, and he was in a suit . . . and there was a guy next to him who was also in a uniform, he was a chauffeur, he was picking me up in a stretch limo, and with champagne in our hands we were driving over the Brooklyn Bridge – that was my first impression of New York.” For a few weeks their romance on 11 Maiden Lane, a quiet, narrow street a few blocks north of Wall Street had a storybook quality to it; the two Peters explored New York, went out to restaurants, and even bought tickets for Orlando, Florida and Disney World. One Monday night, the two settled in on the couch to watch a much-hyped NBC movie called “An Early Frost;” the show was so controversial its ratings were second to none that night, beating the Broncos-49ers game on ABC and Cagney and Lacey on CBS. In the movie the young, handsome main character played by Aidan Quinn goes to the doctor for a rattling, painful cough and night sweats and is diagnosed with AIDS; he is later seen coming out to his parents as both gay and HIV positive. Even while airing the most watched show of the evening, eclipsing Monday night football, NBC lost half a million dollars; advertisers refused to have their products associated with gay characters and the spectre of AIDS.
If Rock Hudson’s death had been foreshadowing, “An Early Frost” played the role of Cassandra in Peter Staley’s life as his boyfriend leaned his head on his shoulder that Monday night, watching the program with increasing fear. “AIDS was, like, maybe on page 8 of the paper in Holland, only occasionally, it was to me, you know, like science fiction . . . I saw that person [in the movie] coughing, and I said to Peter, because, you know, he kept coughing, and I had been saying something to him those few days, and he said ‘oh you know, maybe it’s the air conditioning, it’ll go away’ but it didn’t go away, and so watching that program that night, I was like, ‘you are coughing, you have night sweats too!'” They went to the doctor, a few tests were run, and they were told they would have to call for results the following week while in Florida. Standing on Main Street in Disney World, Peter used a payphone to call the doctor and learned he had AIDS.
Very little, in the fall and winter of 1985, was conclusive about AIDS; so little research had been done at that point that rumors flew constantly, especially outside of the gay community. Where I lived, people believed you could get AIDS from a kiss or a shared drink or a toilet seat. I was 11 years old that winter and remember my father, a smirk on his face, saying he talked to a guy on an airplane who “really got it,” who bragged that he didn’t touch anything in public anymore, that he walked around with a tissue and used it as a barrier when he opened doors, flushed public toilets, touched hand rails. “AIDS! It’s everywhere! Those fags are spreading it everywhere. You just never know.” My mother, ten years later, when I told her I was considering moving to San Francisco after college jumped off the couch and began pacing the living room, wringing her hands, her brows furrowed. “It’s in the water! It’s in the water!” I didn’t know what she meant – did she think the occasional earthquake would send the city into the bay? “No, AIDS, it’s in the water. You can’t go to San Francisco!”
In the Orlando airport for his return flight to New York, Peter happened to walk by a magazine with a cover story about AIDS. “It detailed how the virus integrated itself into your cells and that knowledge was what I found the most frightening, that the virus that I had coursing through me was genetically integrating itself into my immune system. It was very obvious from the article that a cure was something that was decades away.” Two weeks later, at Thanksgiving, Peter and his boyfriend went to his parents’ home in rural Pennsylvania and Peter came out, as both gay and HIV positive. The very next night, Peter’s father insisted that Peter and his boyfriend sleep in their bedroom while he and his wife moved to the guest room which only had two single beds. There were tears that night but, somehow, there wasn’t despair, not yet. Peter was still in love. His parents still loved him. Life back on Wall Street was good, even if he was closeted, even if he still treated his boyfriend like a friend when his work buddies would come over on a Friday night to sit on the floor and laugh and smoke pot.
To really live you must almost die
And it happened just that way with me
They took the gold and set me free
And I walked away from the hangin’ tree
I walked away from the hangin’ tree
And my own true love, she walked with me
Time went by, slowly. There were days when Peter could barely get out of bed; there were days when he felt fine. Over the next year both Peters were trying to find a way to be together — there was a chance JP Morgan could relocate him to Amsterdam; there was a chance his boyfriend could come over as a student. Nothing panned out. Months went by; finally, it was summer. Peter Launy, living in Amsterdam, still terrified of AIDS, not seeing a way to be together, eventually felt he had to break things off. “Everything changed with AIDS. I got really scared. I was 25. Breaking up with someone who you love is so, you know, so very hard . . . I broke up in September, of ’86, and then in October he came to visit me, and I was so mean, I made him stay in separate beds. It was so painful for me, everything in me wanted to tell him ‘stay here, I love you!’ but, well . . . [beginning to cry] well . . . I had to let him go . . . I loved him very much, but I couldn’t deal with it . . . the whole thing. We were so far apart.” Peter Staley was suddenly single, closeted, and living with AIDS, with few people to talk to. At the office it was a commonly expressed sentiment that “those who take it up the butt deserve to die.”
Six months later, in March of 1987, around 7:30 a.m. on his way in to work, Peter saw flyers for a group called ACT UP, the “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.” “I saw the demonstration on the news that night, and I saw the FDA commissioner responding directly with some stated new policies to speed up the approval process, and so it seemed like an immediate and effective demonstration that got a quick reply from the government and I thought, that was real power being displayed, so I was there for the next meeting.” A year later, Peter’s CD4 count plummeted to 100, well below the point where opportunistic disease often sets in. Peter went on permanent disability, telling his boss that same day that he was gay and dying of AIDS. AZT, the only drug available at the time, seemed to be killing him, along with thousands of others. In March of 1987, there was no national organized effort by the government to do anything about it.
From then on, and for the rest of his life, Peter has been a full time activist; the next 5 years were recently portrayed in David France’s documentary, “How To Survive A Plague.” Watching the film several times this fall I was struck by two particular moments, the first when Larry Kramer, in the middle of a contentious, angry ACT UP meeting so heated that there was complete disarray, screams out
We are in the middle of a fucking plague!”
The whole room falls silent and suddenly, at Larry’s goading, there is again a momentary consensus, a common drive, a genuine sense of purpose. Larry, the author of Faggots, of The Normal Heart, the founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and then the founder of ACT UP, is the penultimate leader of the first era of gay activism, the era when we were literally dying in the streets, the era when society looked away, the era defined more by our absence than our presence. In the middle of our very own private, very gay holocaust, Larry was there, screaming to be heard. His screams, sometime in the late 80s / early 90s were finally heard.
According to Peter, however, once their voices had been heard it was time to stop screaming. When ACT UP noisily entered St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and interrupted Sunday mass in December of 1989, Peter told me that “the whole media coverage for an entire week was about our tactics and not about the issues . . . Larry Kramer thinks it was our greatest moment, he thinks we’re more powerful if everybody fears us, and my feeling was, we were at our most powerful when we had the country on our side.” A fissure had been slowly working its way through the members of ACT UP, both in New York and nationally, a tension that had usually been resolved in favor of Kramer’s approach – stand up and scream, always, as loudly as possible. Reflecting on that approach in 2009, Kramer said that today “we’re not angry enough. Anger is what makes activism work and I don’t see any anger now, or fear. The triumphs that we had with ACT UP getting all the drugs has been dissipated because ACT UP self-destructed and everybody went out and acted as if AIDS had never happened.” Shortly after the St. Patrick’s protest, the “Treatment and Data” group that Staley and Mark Harrington led within ACT UP began to plan an exit strategy, a way to work with, not against, the opposition. “We were doing some very intense inside work negotiating with all these big power players and frequently getting our way. That insider work was an anathema to the traditional social activists within ACT UP who really only believed in civil disobedience and demonstrating against the powers that be and didn’t buy into the idea of sitting down and negotiating with your adversaries in that way.”
The second bone chilling, stirring call to action in France’s documentary wasn’t angry and it wasn’t directed at AIDS activists; it wasn’t directed at gay people at all. Instead it was Peter Staley, standing before the 1990 International AIDS Conference in San Francisco, police officers in riot gear partially hidden behind him to prevent other ACT UP members from noisily disrupting the conference as they had done the year before. Watching that moment in 1990 when Peter stood behind the podium at the AIDS conference, an invited insider instead of a disruptive outsider, speaking carefully, eloquently making an appeal to the conference member’s better angels, you begin to feel that Larry’s screams have been superseded. When the entire conference stands up at his request and joins him in an ACT UP protest chant, the feeling is overwhelming — finally, not only is the opposition listening, they are joining in. As Staley tells the audience that “someday there will be a people alive on this earth who will hear the story, that once there was a terrible disease and that a brave group of people stood up and fought, and in some cases died, so that others might live and be free” he is already looking to a future when the fight will be won.
A few weeks ago I spoke with Chris Staley, Peter’s oldest brother, and he left me with this story: “Peter had recently come out of the closet, he had quit his job on Wall Street, and we were outside Philadelphia with our parents at a party, I think it was just after Thanksgiving, you know, at one of our parents’ friend’s houses. Everyone was in coat and tie or a dress and there was this moment, Peter and I were talking to a group of people, maybe 6 or 7 people, all friends of our parents. We were standing there, holding drinks in a little circle and someone asked Peter what he was doing, if he was still on Wall Street, and again, these were our parents’ friends, Peter was in his 20s, these were conservative Republicans in Pennsylvania we were talking to. Peter had just quit his job so he could have easily just nodded yes but he didn’t. He said ‘No, I’m not on Wall Street anymore, I’m working with ACT UP.’ Someone asked what ACT UP was and he told them, ‘well, it means AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, I’m working to try and change government policy for people like myself afflicted with HIV.’
At this point, Chris had to stop talking, overcome with tears.
“I was floored. Two of the people standing there literally turned around and walked away. This was back in the 1980s, when people didn’t want to be in the same room as someone with AIDS, and Peter had the guts to say ‘I’m working with ACT UP.’ It’s so easy to lose sight of what people went through then. Peter came out swinging, but it was always tempered with a calm focus.”
Peter Staley eagerly joined and helped lead the fiercest battle the gay community has ever fought, fighting for access to more and better drugs, fighting for society to pay attention to the thousands, and eventually millions, dying of AIDS. Yet, even at the height of that battle he was focused on what would happen after the war. Peter was a romantic; his approach to activism, once he was strong enough to leave ACT UP, was to take the opposition on a date, to win them over with his earnest smile, to speak in poetry and bring his audience to its feet. Bob Rafsky, another prominent activist in ACT UP who followed Peter to form TAG, the “Treatment and Action Group,” wrote a piece for the New York Times, in 1992 — “A Better Life for Having Acted Up” — wistfully and painfully remembering the “false hopes” of the previous five years he spent with the AIDS activist group ACT UP. “It’s always possible we’ll win. The drug, or drugs, that will turn AIDS into a chronic illness like diabetes will finally be discovered. We’ll have years to study the lessons of the fight against the epidemic. As in the old country-western song, the hanging tree will become our tree of life. But it’s not likely, at least not in time for me. My T4 cells have started to drop again, as I feared, and now I have to begin chemotherapy for Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer.” Bob died one year later, his battle with AIDS eloquently portrayed in France’s documentary.
What sustained the Greek folk hero Odysseus through 10 years of war and 10 years lost at sea was the prospect of someday rekindling his romance with his wife Penelope; of that, he never lost sight. For that promise alone, he never stopped giving thanks.
That’s when I knew that the hangin’ tree
Was a tree of life, new life for me
A tree of hope, new hope for me
A tree of love, new love for me