Longform

Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive

Page 19 of 27

Gourley admitted that he'd become an "AIDS information junkie." He read everything he could get his hands on, including materials from the ostriches who tried to claim there was no such thing as HIV or, if it did exist, proof that it caused AIDS. He was enough of an epidemiologist to know that if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and has feathers like a duck, then it's a friggin' duck. But he understood those who were in denial: What was happening was so horrible that it was easy to want not to believe.

In April 1986, Gourley left his job as an intensive-care nurse at University Hospital to work for a program at Denver General that would teach safe-sex practices to gay men and gauge its effectiveness. It was the hospital's first major grant for AIDS research and was administered by Dr. Cohn, who hired Gourley on the spot when he applied. He recognized the benefit of having a gay man, an HIV-positive one at that, run the program. But he also knew that Gourley had a top-notch reputation as an intensive-care nurse.

It wasn't going to be easy to convince gay men to wear condoms. Rubbers were anathema to the gay culture -- they represented heterosexual birth control, not disease prevention. But Gourley prevailed. He had to. His people were dying.

Around this time, Gourley turned to Buddhism. Following his sister's death and brother's accident, he'd been looking for a spiritual base, but going back to Catholicism wasn't an option, and the pagan/wiccan beliefs he'd espoused earlier weren't adequate. Young men -- younger than him -- were dying, and he had the virus that was killing them. He found solace in the Buddhist message that death was inevitable but no one could know the time of it.

"I do find myself appreciating the here and now in a way I never did a couple of years ago," he wrote. "I find myself going out of my way to do things for others and to say that 'thank you' and to be sensitive to the trials and tribulations of those around me...AIDS is also teaching me a deep appreciation for the oneness of all humanity...on a nitty-gritty level, I find I have lots in common with a black, female IV drug user from Manhattan."

He was using this new perspective to continue working on philosophical ideas. "One, 'gay' is not a cross to bear, but a variation on a human theme to be celebrated and explored like all possibilities we are given; two, illness is not punishment but necessity -- health has no meaning or relevance without it.

"What if I didn't have this opportunity to richly focus on the moment?" Gourley asked. "What if I wasn't appreciating the similarities between myself and a nodding junkie with a needle in her arm in a downtown shooting gallery?

"What if my major concern was whether or not I could drive my car around in circles in Cheesman Park?"

Like deaths in a family, AIDS had a way of putting everything into perspective.

Gourley recalled a conversation from the summer of 1986: Only my wife and my father know I have AIDS. Everyone else thinks I have cancer. Can you make sure my death certificate doesn't say AIDS on it? People just don't understand, you know, especially not back in Oklahoma. It bothered him that a man who contracted HIV from his homosexual lover was more concerned with his obituary than with dealing with who he was and what was killing him.

He found himself again hammering on the need to bring AIDS out of the closet before gays were chased back in, undoing all the work that had gone on before the plague. He was proud of the men he saw now with lesions on their faces and beads around their necks, demanding of their government that something be done. He urged others who were HIV-positive to "come out" to their families; then straight society would be forced to deal with gays and AIDS -- not in the abstract, but as it touched the lives of people they loved. He had done so himself and was relieved at the comfort and support his own family had shown.

"We must ourselves realize that AIDS is not a gay disease. We need to understand the fact that AIDS, and its devastating effects on the gay male community in this country, is a historical accident. The coincidental appearance of this virus and the explosion of gay sexual liberation in the Seventies was not divinely orchestrated."

Historically, Gourley believed, "the Seventies gay male liberation movement with its over-emphasis on the 'macho,' consumption-oriented lifestyle of the ghetto will be seen as an adolescent growth phase. The underlying philosophy of the time, i.e., 'the only difference between us and them is where we put our dicks,' will be understood for what it was -- an overly zealous attempt to deal with our own internalized homophobia."

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Steve Jackson