“The light that you would never see.
It shines inside, you can’t take that from me.”
Prelude to a Dance.
As long as there’s been AIDS, there’s been Madonna.
While the virus that causes AIDS predates Madonna’s fame, during the initial years of the outbreak the illness was referred to as G.R.I.D (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). It wasn’t until August 1982 that the disease officially became known as AIDS, after the CDC offered “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” as a less discriminating alternative.
The summer of 1982 was also when a catchy new track began surfacing in New York City clubs. The pulsating groove was infectious, even Sire Records fell victim to the infused beats. Later that October the record label signed a deal with the bohemian artist singing on the track, Madonna.
And so it came to be… Like many gay men of my generation, my story came to be about a boy and two titans, each equally hellbent on world domination: Madonna and the Plague.
ACT I: “The Kid, the Stalker, and a Magic Poem”
I recall the day I first learned about AIDS. My dad was reading the Chicago Tribune and tossed the completed front section on the floor. On the back was a full page article about AIDS symptoms. Among the many ailments listed: fevers, night sweats, wasting, soars in the mouth, and skin lesions. And if the symptoms weren’t horrific enough, the article stressed that the disease had been especially devastating to the gay community.
It’s difficult to explain how I felt at that moment, but at best I’d describe it as seismic déjà vu. For a moment, time rippled like a tolling bell. I wasn’t reading an article in the newspaper, something menacing was whispering “hello” in my ear.
As an only child of working parents, I had a lot of time to obsess about my fears and confusion.
Poetry, specifically, helped me write what was unbearable to speak.
With AIDS lurking about, by 1985 my poems centered around survival, my hopes of evading “the stalker”.
It may seem irrational to be worried about AIDS at fourteen, but I was just coming to terms with my sexuality and had reservations about both lifestyles ahead.
For me, the decision wasn’t whether to be straight or gay. I knew what I was. Instead, I saw two very different alternatives:
- In one life, I’d be a prisoner, locked away in a secret cell, peeping at my life regretfully through a keyhole.
- In the other, I’d be a fugitive. Although I’d be stalked and likely captured, I’d be free to love who I choose.
Not getting AIDS was never a question. Should I live life as a gay man, I was certain the disease would be my cross to bare. Although I didn’t see it this way at the time, my decision ultimately came down a very American question – Was I willing to die young for freedom?
I am a white male living in the United States of America who was raised Catholic. Trust me when I say, being gay wasn’t the path I wanted to travel. Yet despite AIDS, my upbringing, and the likely discrimination I’d encounter, being queer felt more honorable and brave. I had just enough foresight to realize that the alternative – lying, faking love and marriage – would be selfish and destructive for all involved.
I said goodbye to a never-to-be wife, confident it was best for her and the kids. Then I closed my eyes and covered my ears, prayed my heart wouldn’t guide me off a cliff.
Stumbling blindly into adulthood, I did my best to avoid AIDS, but it proved to be a futile task. By my late-twenties, AIDS was everywhere, and I was surrounded…
What happened in the mid 90′s is a separate post altogether, but suffice it to say – My pleasures depended on the permission of no one. Call it pent up frustration, but my twenties were reckless and carefree, a stark contrast to the introverted poet I was a teenager.
Unfortunately, because I was carefree in my twenties, I misplaced most of my poems from 1985. Despite the loss of my journals, there was one poem – a simple rhyme that grew louder with each passing year – that haunted me throughout my adulthood.
In the end, that poem is the reason why I created the website, Guy Penn, and why I’m writing this specific post today…
ACT II: “A Fairy God-Diva named Madge”
For 2 years, I’d done the impossible, I’d managed to ignore Madonna.
Up until 1985, what I knew about Madonna I didn’t like. I was annoyed with the song “Borderline”, because I thought the title was “Waterline”, and anyone comparing love to water pressure was just weird and not to be trusted. I also remember three girls singing “Holiday” during recess. When I asked them what they were singing, they started squealing about seeing Madonna at “The Virgin Tour”, which was, by all accounts – totally gross.
But then came one fateful night… I was recording Friday Night Videos with my Betamax VCR, eager to capture my favorite song at the time, “We Are the World”. The video that followed was “Material Girl”, featuring the one woman missing from the star-studded lineup, the one woman who would outshine them all – Madonna, wrapped in a big red bow.
In the age of AIDS, Madonna became my bedazzled life coach. After so much dark introspection and fear, she had a way of drawing me back to the light.
Where AIDS was scary and grim, Madonna was sparkly, high-octane optimism, a musical cornucopia overflowing with Lucky Stars, Holidays, and Shoo-be-doo’s, reminding me life was to be lived, not feared.
Sprinkling disco beats from her celestial powered mirrored ball, Madonna managed to do the impossible in the mid-80′s – She helped me envision a world more celebratory, inclusive, and kind, where even a queer punk like me could be loved and accepted…
Although I became a Madonna fan because of her music, I remained one because of her support.
- Madonna fought for gay rights when I didn’t have the esteem or the courage. She challenged social norms and hypocrisy when other wouldn’t, back when her voice was needed most – When men were dieing, the silence was deafening, and you could hear a pin drop on the disco floor.
- Madonna songs typically gravitate around love, acceptance, pride, and enlightenment. It so happens, I’m a big fan of each. As an added bonus, I also enjoy dancing and sex (although I’ve learned to avoid both at once).
- Above all, I must confess – Madonna bridges me to my youth. Now in my 40′s, where Madge is concerned, I’m still young, a giddy uniformed schoolboy, flipping eagerly through the pages of Tigerbeat at a local newsstand.
With a catalog of music spanning 30 years, fans sometimes retrofit their lives to Madonna’s songs, and I am no exception. The gospel according to Madge has always had an uncanny way of capturing pivotal acts of my life. So much so, at times I’ve enjoyed entertaining the question – Am I Madonna’s muse?
After one year of Madonna fandom, such a moment occurred. I received a special gift from Madge, a ballad that poignantly echoed the sentiments of my poem, “Time To Play”.
Sappy, sentimental bloke that I am – writing this post now, looking back at the AIDS pandemic – I like to imagine the ballad contains the middle verses of my misplaced poem, “Time to Play”.
ACT III: “Time Traveling with Madge”
This April I’ll be turning 42. Sitting here now, overlapping my poem with Madonna’s song, I realize – Albeit a couple years late, this post is a promise being fulfilled.
Despite my expectations and adversities, I am a man who lived to tell. As such, I’m feeling obligated to share a secret that I have learned…
AIDS is not the stalker I once feared. AIDS is my liberator. It didn’t force gay men out of the closet, it demolished the walls that Adam built, left us naked and vulnerable to the masses.
Nearly 30 million people worldwide have died since the AIDS crisis began, so I don’t mean to typecast the disease or undermine the magnitude of its horror and devastation. But when I frame the pandemic as bookends, I am suddenly humbled by how much the United States, among a growing list of countries, has changed.
28 years ago, I didn’t think people cared if I lived or died, because many believed gays were deviants, sinners worthy of the plague. Today, however, the majority of Americans support the right for me to marry my partner, believe our love is worthy of protection.
AIDS is not an exclusively homosexual disease. It has broken hearts both straight and gay. But in America we are haunted by its origins. Not acknowledging AIDS for the tectonic shift in popular opinion would be an injustice to all the gay men who fought and died, so that I could live to tell; it would be disrespectful to those who lost lovers, friends or family members to the pandemic, who demanded social change and medical research… Not acknowledging AIDS contributions to our national character would discount the breadth of our collective humanity, our nation’s enduring battle to be a more perfect union.
AIDS is a different kind of love story, one that shines from within. In the end, Madonna and the plague are a matter of perspective. Our reaction to each says more about us than them. In the past 30 years, for better or worse, both AIDS and Madonna refused to be ignored. Each invited our judgement and indignation, provoked us to reconsider the limitations of freedom and love.
The history of AIDS will prove to be a tragedy written in tears, but its final act is yet to be told. With the help of outspoken Americans like Madonna, however, the moral of this plague is becoming increasingly clear – I entered this fight wounded and alone, but I will leave it healed with a nation uniting behind me.
Whether you pray to a book, wrap yourself in a flag, or are enchanted by a pop star, what matters most are the lessons we learn, how we interpret words written and sung.
The gospel according to Madge is certainly open to interpretation. And I don’t presume to speak for all gay men of my generation, the first generation of teenage boys to sexually awaken to a world with AIDS in it. But I hope a few of my Madonna-luvin’ brethren from the 80′s are comforted by the audacity of this closing sentiment…
Where my soul was concerned, Madonna was the cure for AIDS.