When I tell people that I was diagnosed with HIV twenty years ago in my mid twenties, a time when a HIV diagnosis was a death sentence, they usually assume it was a huge turning point in my life. They assume something that big, that dramatic, must have turned my life upside down, shaken me to the very core, and changed me in some profound way. No doubt I must have learned something about myself, about life, perhaps about the cruelty or haphazard nature of life’s twists. And they imagine that I have gained some kind of wisdom from it that I will now impart to them. Maybe something about living each day as if it’s your last, or grabbing life by the horns and taking every opportunity that comes your way. Maybe I’m going to tell them to take time to stop and smell the flowers and to not sweat the small stuff. But I have to disappoint them. I have nothing profound to impart.
Oh sure it was a big deal. Twenty years later and can still describe every minute detail of my doctor’s 1996 office. His pen lying on his open notebook, the post-it notes by his hand, the colour and texture of his corduroys, the clock on the wall beside a drug company sponsored wall chart, peeling away from the clumsily applied Blu-Tack on one corner. But a couple of hours later at home, I was hungry and had to make a sandwich with the fridge-wilted lettuce I nearly threw out the day before. And that evening I still had to wash the dirty dishes. Life’s mundanities didn’t stop just because someone told me I was going to die. The dog still needed to be walked, the bins still needed to be put out, the electricity bill still needed to be paid. I didn’t start grabbing life by the horns. I couldn’t. I’d just run out of bin bags and Tesco was closing in thirty minutes. Life’s turning points are often much more mundane or unexpected.
In 1986 I went to a gay bar for the first time. I’d never really met other gay people before that. I went because I was desperate to meet other people just like me. And hopefully to finally get laid. (I did both!) But walking nervously through the door of that innocuous basement changed my life as profoundly as Harry Potter’s first letter from Hogwarts. It revealed to me a previously hidden secret world that had existed all along hidden in plain sight. A magical world of Witchcraft and Faggotry where a hundred people just like me were dancing sweatily to the Pointer Sisters, while feet away, on the pavement above our heads, the Muggles were passing by, oblivious, on their way to catch the night bus home.
There, under the pavement and under the mirrorball, I discovered a tribe like me. Hidden and ignored, they were building a whole new world where we were free to make up our own rules as we went along, and where everything was up for grabs. And over a glass of Campari and orange juice I was changed profoundly. I wasn’t the only gay in the world, I could be whoever I wanted to be, and nothing would ever be the same.
Listen to the full episode of Pantisocracy: Turning Points by clicking on the image above or tune into Radio One, 10pm Tuesday.