Resisting Eragure: The Haunting Eyes of Peter Hujar

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President Obama After Mid-term Elections
Don’t shoot, Officer Mitch!

The Republicans have recaptured Capitol Hill, pummeling the President onto the lame-duck political ropes. “Obama Vows to Cooperate, Within Limits” blared the headline in the New York Times. (As one of my coworkers put it ruefully, “He sounds like he’s been taken hostage.”) The photo on the website of the New York Daily News was even worse, freezing Obama with his hands up as if he’d been cornered by Officer Mitch McConnell of the Ferguson, MO, po-lice (sic and sick). The Republican party will now control at least 62 state legislatures and 31 governorships. For those of us of the liberal persuasion, it’s a bleak day.

And it feels very familiar. It brings me back to the morning 20 years ago when Newt Gingrich, under the banner of the “Contract with America,” led the successful Republican revolution against Clintonian neo-liberalism. In one fell swoop, those on the conservative end of the political spectrum seized the Congress, the majority of governorships and the majority of state houses. Republicans had not been in control of Congress since the Eisenhower administration; one had to go as far back as World War II to find a time when they controlled a majority of the states. But perhaps worse than that, Gingrich’s incendiary partisan rhetoric took a blowtorch to the finely wrought network of cross-party horse-trading, such as between Republicans and boll weevil Democrats, that had kept Washington functioning since the Progressive era. In the process, he ushered in our current political era of My Team’s the Best, Your Team Is Evil and Must Be Eradicated at All Costs. That morning of Nov. 9, 1994, was a bleak one indeed.

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Ruined Bed, Newark by Peter Hujar
This is what it feels like to be living with AIDS.

What made it bleaker for me personally was the domestic tragedy unfolding within the one-bedroom Hell’s Kitchen apartment that I shared with my first partner, Jonathan. I didn’t know it then, but he only had three weeks to live. That morning for me will forever be tied to the memory of Jonathan staggering into the bathroom as I got ready for work, clinging to the walls for support. The tumor growing in his head as the result of HIV-related lymphoma was pressing on his optic nerve, rendering him blind in one eye, and the neurological damage it was doing affected his balance. The muscular wasting in his legs left him further unsteady on his feet. That last month of his life, merely crossing the few feet from the dining table to the couch required Herculean effort, but he refused to be bedridden.

“Those fucking Republicans, baby, those fucking Republicans.” It was a wail of despair — an actual keening. He was doing the Jonathan gesture of disdain — a queenly flipping over of his hands, like some grande dame frying griddle cakes — but in that moment, it felt more like a flapping of desperation. The hope of many gay men when Clinton was elected president two years earlier — that finally something would be done about the HIV epidemic, that the U.S. government would stop being so mean to people with AIDS — was evaporating before our eyes. Soon Jonathan would evaporate before mine, disappearing into a seizure on our bedroom floor in the early morning hours of Dec. 1 — World AIDS Day.

The pain of Jonathan’s loss was and is a curious thing: at once almost unbearable in those moments when it overtakes me, and yet at a remove most of the remainder of the time, as if it had happened to someone else. Certainly I have been complicit in the process of “eragure” that I wrote about in my last column, content to allow the busy-ness of my life to ameliorate the rage at what happened.

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But at times it does overtake me, usually when I least expect it. A few months ago I found myself reconnecting to that grief and anger while attending the opening of the Permanency show at the Leslie Lohman Museum, an exhibit of recently acquired works by that newly constituted institution (for many years it was a for-profit private gallery). Among these works are 30 prints donated by the Peter Hujar Archive. For those of you who don’t know who he was (and you should), Hujar created one of the most stupendous visual records of the AIDS generation, both before people started getting sick and dying and after the nightmare started, and before himself dying of AIDS in 1987. He photographed every significant figure of the queer downtown avant-garde of the 1970s and ’80s. Even if the name isn’t familiar, you’ve almost certainly seen many of his pictures — they’re that iconic.

His images in the show completely undid me. I stood transfixed, reluctant to move. Most of his subjects, like Hujar, are now deceased, but in the moment of communion with the force of their personalities captured by his lens, they live again. Breaking your gaze would consign them yet again to the grave. However, Hujar is never sentimental or pandering in his portrayals. Lots of difficult a-holes died of AIDS, but being difficult doesn’t mean they deserved to die.

Charles Ludlam by Peter Hujar
The mesmerizing theatricality of Charles Ludlam.

Two photos in particular haunt me — one of an object, one of a person. “Ruined Bed, Newark,” from 1985, is exactly what it feels like to live with the ravages of AIDS, while the eyes in Hujar’s portrait of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s founder, “Charles Ludlam (III) Morton Street,” reveal just how charismatic the playwright-actor was. When Ludlam sat for it in 1975, he was 32. No beauty by contemporary standards of gay “hotness,” the sexual intensity he radiates in the photo sears the viewer. Most porn stars can only at best indicate at being in such heat, pointing to how great a loss his death from AIDS really was.

In a few weeks, I’ll observe the 20th anniversary of Jonathan’s passing. A few months after that, I’ll confront the fact that I’ve been HIV-positive myself for 10 years. At times I feel a lot of guilt that I got infected long after I should have known better, that somehow I’ve let down Jonathan and all the others who didn’t have that option of making it to this point in time, when having the virus can be a chronic but manageable state of being. Calling it a “disease” seems like an absurd statement when I’m not sick and have seen firsthand what the disease really looks like.

The queer community has made staggering progress in the last 20 years. Things that seemed impossible or out of reach in the mid 90s — gay marriage; living full lives with HIV under a public health system (at least here in New York) that makes it possible; huge, mainstream gay, lesbian and transgender celebrities — are now part of our everyday lives. Still, there are people, like many of those who swept into power on Tuesday, who would prefer us dead to us living our fabu-tankerous lives. Forget the 1990s: they want to turn back the clock to the 1890s. Well, we’re not going to let them.

I wrote in my last column that at 45 I’m not ready to give up the theatre. I’m also not ready to give up my politics. I can’t undo my status, but I can live my life, I can make my art, I can resist right-wing conservatism among our enemies, and I can resist eragure among our friends. I’d like to think that Jonathan would approve.

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Tim Cusack
Tim Cusack is the artistic director of Theatre Askew. For Askew he has appeared in and/or directed numerous productions, including Bald Diva!; i google myself; I, Claudius; Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor; and Busted. He is the co-author of a study guide to the significant court cases of the gay rights movement and a former contributor to Stage Directions magazine. He holds a BFA from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts and an MA in Theatre from Hunter College, where he was a Vera Roberts fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @TheatreAskew.