AT OUR BEST: Respect Your Gay Elders
"Crisis has a transforming effect."
There is a moment in the movie “Starman” when Jeff Bridges, as an alien visitor to earth, observes with awe a singular fact of humanity. “Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your best when things are worst.”
Psychologists have a field day over such observations, often trying to find the self-serving, self-preserving impulse behind such seemingly selfless moments. Why does a mother of five race into a burning building to rescue someone else’s grandparents or cats? What drives a bystander to give chase to armed robbers he sees fleeing another man’s jewelry store? Or from what well of strength did literally thousands of New Yorkers throw themselves into the wreckage of 9/11, to save whatever life might have lain buried there?
There is something sacred in those impulses, something beyond the normal reasoning or the mathematics of loss vs. gain that we apply to the more mundane situations of our lives.
While in my own life I’ve not been confronted with quite such theatrical challenges, I know my particular gift of being at my best when things are at their worst is kind of a superpower. It seems to come through me, rather than from me. I have a certain otherworldly calm and tenderness around the dead and dying, which helps me deal with profound illness, in others and in myself.
Perhaps this was meant to be, because life has brought me to the bedside of so many who are dying. I have at times felt like the mythic Greek oarsman Charon – the one given the grave responsibility of ferrying the newly dead to that most lonely of places, the unknown shore beyond.
Today I tried to explain to young LGBTQ+ friends what it was like to be young and queer in the 1980’s and 90’s. It was a time when at the ripest bloom of our own sexual and social lives we gay men and women found ourselves as wound-dressers, nurses, soothers, caregivers, and eulogizers to the dead and dying all around us, many of whom were younger even than we were. A typical weekend involved the participation in funeral services, the arranging of cremations, or burials for loved ones – while balancing food-runs to the sick, and lengthy calls on behalf of others to family members as their illnesses grew critical. Some families were gay friendly, many were not.
My younger LGBTQ+ friends were baffled. “How did you all do it?” they asked. To this day I am not sure how we did. But the fact that we did has brought me some of the most profound emotional gifts of my life.
My preparation for the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic was deeply personal. My identical twin suffered a massive brain injury in 1984, when his motorcycle skidded in Seattle sending him careening into a tree and then down a cliff to a jogging path twenty feet below. For two months he lay in a coma, and I’ve lost count of the times, during that period, my family and I were told to say our farewells, that he wouldn’t make it through the night.
And though his illness tore me from my own rich life in Los Angeles – I’d just started a television productions company and was deeply in love for the first time – I don’t recall ever losing my temper, my focus, or my ability to foresee the small and large needs around me. Giving a hug to an overworked intensive care nurse, or forcing my parents to rest when exhaustion and despair ringed their eyes.
I had not been that calm or generous before. Crisis has a transforming effect.
And then came AIDS, or GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), as it was first called back in 1982. This ravaging, terrifying disease that arrived like a pyroclastic blast from hell setting the entire world of gay men and women and the people who loved them ablaze.
At its peak, Frontiers Magazine, the weekly rag of LA’s gay community, normally about 90 pages long, would swell to the size of a small city’s phone book with the number of obituaries and candlelight vigils for men who at that point in their lives should have been gallivanting through the Greek Isles, or buying their first homes.
My brother Eddie, miraculously, pulled through his brain trauma, though the next fifteen years of his life and mine were straining – breaking my capacity to remain calm and hopeful.
I was 33 in 1985 when I too was diagnosed with HIV, and the ascending arc of my career as a television writer and producer was kept earthbound by the descending arc (my own “Gravity’s Rainbow”) of my health. At the fifteen-year mark, the heart attacks and kidney failure precipitated by AIDS felt right at home with the other “worsts” of my life. A blinding avalanche of sorrows brought the death of my brother from causes related to his brain injury, followed within a year and a half by both parents, my career’s collapse with the almost overnight disappearance of the television movie business, the brutal break-up of a nine-year relationship with my lover, and other devastating losses.
Was I at my best in the years of shadowy sex, drug use, and near self-annihilation that followed? Most decidedly not. But I was human – a fact that I now, graced to have survived it all, forgive myself for being. I still have some open wounds and am working on them. From the scars of this life my heart has been carved deeper, a gift that came in dark wrappings, but I’ll keep it.
The world as I look around me these days, with my 68-year-old eyes so long in the shadow blinking against the light, seems a foreign place. And I wonder if the Phoenix, when it famously rose from its own ashes, felt the same disorientation?
Meet The Family
Joe Maurer is a Writer’s Guild of America award-winning screenwriter and producer in American television. During his long 35-year career he has written and/or produced over twenty films for all of the major networks, PBS, Showtime, and Masterpiece Theater. In addition to the WGA award, his work has received multiple Emmy nominations, Film Festival awards, and twice been honored with the Humanitas Prize for “Humanizing Achievements in Film and Television.”
Semi-retired these days, he cohabits with his Labrador Retriever and Labradoodle In the heart of Los Angeles.