Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive

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"Also, we can only hope to prevent further erosion of our civil liberties around the AIDS issue by developing straight allies...The only effective way to develop these allies is to present ourselves as real human beings, and this cannot be done from the closet. A closeted lifestyle in this very threatening time is indefensible. The first step is to look realistically at how bad things already are, and it will become obvious that no such thing as a 'safe closet' exists for anyone anymore."

Gourley's stance against anonymous testing wasn't winning him many friends in the gay community. He was frequently confronted by angry men. In particular, he found an antagonist in gay activist Tom Witte, who accused him of being an "Uncle Tom" for the health department.

In July 1985, Gourley signed up for the pilot testing program conducted by the Denver Public Health Department. His lover, however, wasn't interested. Woodyard remained faithful to Christianity, believing there was a place for gay Christians and rejecting the fundamentalist idea that AIDS was God's wrath on gays -- but in many ways, he was Gourley's greatest Buddhist teacher. In the West, particularly America, good health was often equated with being good, illness with having done something wrong. But Woodyard argued that illness was just part of life, as was death. The question was how to integrate them into living. There was nothing anybody could do if he was infected, so why test? But Gourley just had to know.

As expected, his test came back positive. He wasted a moment wondering if it was God's punishment for his lifestyle, but quickly dismissed that as left over from his Irish-Catholic upbringing and moved on to a game he called "What ifs?"

What if that affair with an older man when he was sixteen had not been such a positive experience and he had remained in the closet? What if he had gone into the priesthood? What if he hadn't had so much sex in 1979 with so many different partners?

What if he were straight?

The questions, of course, were meaningless. He was gay. He wasn't a priest (not that that would have been any protection). He'd had many lovers. Hell, Blanche, crap happens to everyone, he reminded himself, since Gorman wasn't around to do it for him.

There were bigger things to worry about. It wasn't until 1985, nearly four years after the epidemic began, that President Ronald Reagan first uttered the word "AIDS" in a public forum. That was also the year Rock Hudson died of the disease, putting AIDS and gays in a new perspective for the American public.

And there was soon another incident to put Gourley's own troubles into perspective. August was not a good month. His father and sister had died in August, and in August 1985, Gourley's 33-year-old brother was in a car accident.

His sibling had fallen asleep at the wheel coming home from work and driven into a telephone pole. He was in intensive care for a week, and Gourley was visiting him when the doctors at last unwrapped the bandages from around his face. He would live, but he was blind and disfigured.

Up to that point, Gourley had been toying with the idea of telling his family that he was HIV-positive. But now it seemed insignificant. He knew one thing: I'd rather have HIV than be blind at 33.

If the thunder don't get ya', the lightnin' will...

There was something about that line from the Grateful Dead song "The Wheel" that seemed to sum up the AIDS crisis for Gourley. He used it to lead off an article for Out Front in November 1986.

"It has been over a year now since I had the AIDS virus antibody test and learned that I was positive and therefore infected with the virus that causes AIDS. Though I had anticipated that this would be the case, receiving the news and seeing the pink slip that the results were on came as quite a jolt."

Gourley recalled his game of "what ifs," but noted he played the game much less frequently. "What is proving more difficult to deal with than guilt is the occasional and at times nearly incapacitating rushes of AIDS ANXIETY -- usually initiated by a very innocuous zit, an innocent ache or pain, or the dreaded 'white tongue' following a night of rich food and too much wine."

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Steve Jackson