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At home, in the pandemic months: Remembering queer ancestors, documenting loss

For most of us, I think the pandemic was the time when we realised what we need the most and who we really care about.

December 25, 2021 / 08:56 AM IST
(from left) Bearded Cockette (1973) | Courtesy: The Peter Hujar Archive; and Silence = Death | Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W., New York.

(from left) Bearded Cockette (1973) | Courtesy: The Peter Hujar Archive; and Silence = Death | Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W., New York.

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, because of the many privileges I had—home, books, and a regular source of income, I had the time to mull over this perpetual feeling of loss. In a New York Times column, Adam Grant named it ‘languishing’.

To me, it felt like loneliness.

Bereft of the promise of touch, and the warmth of friends, and my accustomedness to seeing queer people outside a Starbucks in the heart of Delhi, I was overcome by this feeling of being trapped; there was no escape, I had to make sense of loss.

Being remembered

Whenever I think of my father, who was 40 when he died, the scene of his funeral starts to play in my mind. The well of loneliness gets deeper and deeper. The hope to meet him someday diminishes further. Sometimes I wonder whether I remember him only because his death was unprecedented, like many of those people lost to AIDS and in the wake of the ongoing pandemic to another invisible enemy: SARS-CoV-2.

Close

But such comparisons of losses aren’t just lazy—they are uninformed. When you’re denied healthcare that’s available only when you’re gay and trans, it further marginalises you and leaves you alone to die. In such a scenario, how can you create a record of the invisible? How, then, do you remember?

World AIDS Day

“Innumerable deaths. Unfathomable loss. Nothing had effected [sic] my life as much as the death of my young best friend and my own HIV diagnosis,” writes David Russell, remembering Mathew Marlowe, his friend who died of AIDS in 1992.

This was one of the many tributes that came in as part of the World AIDS Day observance earlier this month (December 1). These, along with the hashtag #WhatIsRememberedLives, were floated on the exceptional Instagram page @theaidsmemorial.

David Russell (L) and Mathew Marlowe (R) | Courtesy: @theaidsmemorial David Russell (L) and Mathew Marlowe (R) | Courtesy: @theaidsmemorial

Documenting lives

For most of us, I think the pandemic was the time when we realised what we need the most and who we really care about.

For me, that something happened to be reading. Reading not only helped me remain sane during all lockdowns but also helped me suppress the urge to go out. For I was feeling trapped, unable to express and conduct myself in the way I wanted.

Writing, on the other hand, kept me engaged, alive, and relevant. It was at this moment I felt the need to create a record of myself. It was also a way to fight back, as American painter, model, photographer, hustler, and gay activist David Wojnarowicz would note “silence = death.”

Silence = Death | Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W., New York. Silence = Death | Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W., New York.

Reading list

It was while reading Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes that I first experienced reading as anything remarkably heart-wrenching and cathartic. Next was The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. I started reading this book two weeks before the pandemic-induced lockdown was announced; I was in Dehradun, celebrating my official birthday.

Not only did it break something in me, but it also provided me perspectives to look at and look for records. To many cis-het people, who began writing about this work of Laing often romanced around loneliness, but it was as much a record of queer artists like David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Andy Warhol, and Derek Jarman.

A medical herbalist by training, Laing’s upbringing wasn’t a cis-het one. She was raised by lesbians. Her teachers were “perpetually curious about the family situation,” as England at that time was in the grips of Section 28—a clause that prohibited “promotion of homosexuality.” Her sister Kitty gave her Derek Jarman’s penultimate memoir Modern Nature in 1993—the year I was born (officially). Jarman died of AIDS-related illness in 1994—the year I’m speculated to be born. Yes, my family isn’t sure when I was born. My existence is living proof of colossal damages one can invite by mishandling records.

Laing not only celebrates Jarman, but she also credits using his voice in her first book To the River. To find what comfort and inspiration she must have drawn from a string of diary entries on gardening and more, I began reading Modern Nature. And to experience the hurt and anger that Wojnarowicz felt seeing his friends die of AIDS, I began reading Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. And each of these further enhanced my depth of understanding, I believe, but more than that Laing’s books, works of queer artists, and Instagram pages like @theaidsmemorial made me introspect the need for documenting, recording, which erstwhile I was doing out of boredom or self-indulgence.

And I arrived at a singular answer: because this way, we can perhaps keep the lost ones, the nowhere peoples—people like my father, or queer lives lost to AIDS in the 1980s and now to Covid-19—alive and alleviate their suffering by granting them their much-deserved due: cultural citizenships.
Saurabh Sharma is a freelance journalist who writes on books and gender.
first published: Dec 25, 2021 08:54 am
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