CLIENT SPOTLIGHT: HANK
Photo Credit: Saul Bromberger & Sandra Hoover Photography
When I moved to San Francisco in August 1980 to take a job as Assistant Editor of Drummer Magazine, little did I know that I had arrived just in time to witness the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. I had wanted all my adult life to live in San Francisco. I craved the sense of freedom and liberation that has always been the hallmark of this great city. However, as this insidious virus began its unfettered rampage through our community, that sense of freedom and liberation turned in to abject terror and chaos. Along with thousands of others, I watched helpless and hopeless as the virus decimated our once thriving community.
Between 1981 and 1989, every new friend I had made since moving to San Francisco died from AIDS. I stopped counting the dead on my 36th birthday, when the number hit 36.
After eight years of seeing my friends seroconvert and die, I too was diagnosed with HIV in 1989. The only surprise was that I wasn’t surprised. I had expected this diagnosis for seven or eight years — in those days, we all expected it. Devastated by grief at my friends’ deaths and terrified of dying myself, I withdrew from the world, disconnected from my community —rather, what was left of my community. I had made a living for years writing erotic fiction. But as we faced the ever-mounting death toll from AIDS, writing erotic fiction just seemed frivolous, almost disrespectful of the dead. But the things that I wanted to write about, that I knew I must write about, were simply too painful even to contemplate, let alone write about them. And so I didn’t write — I couldn’t write — for 33 years.
And then in April 2016, my fiancé (now husband) and I went to the premiere of the documentary “Last Men Standing” at the Castro Theatre. After the movie, we followed the crowd to the St. John the Evangelist church for REVIVAL, a dance sponsored by Honoring Our Experience (H.O.E.), Shanti’s social and emotional support group for long-term HIV/AIDS survivors like me. In addition to being a lot of fun, REVIVAL was a revelation for me. It was my introduction to the incredibly diverse, welcoming, thriving community of long-term survivors in San Francisco — the first time I recognized that I am not alone as an HIV-positive man who survived the early, ugly years of the pandemic. I was hooked!
I volunteered to work on the planning committee for upcoming REVIVAL dances, where I got to know [Shanti HIV Counselor] Gregg Cassin, the program director for H.O.E., and the other Shanti volunteers putting together the dances and the weekend retreats that H.O.E. sponsors. I met and worked with an incredible group of dedicated, creative, inspiring survivors who take sustenance from helping and supporting others. We share a history of loss and grief, but also of great courage, generosity, and love.
I had been aware of Shanti’s many services to the HIV community, but the crazy-stubborn Capricorn in me had never taken advantage of those services. Until, that is, 2017 when I fell at home, fracturing my pelvis and causing an inoperable compression fracture in my spine. Despite months of physical therapy, I still cannot walk or stand for more than a few minutes before my pelvis and back start screaming at me in pain. Thus, I have been confined to a wheelchair whenever I leave the apartment. It was then I decided that I needed help.
After meeting with Nick Picciani [a Care Navigator in Shanti’s HIV Services Program], I agreed to sign up for Shanti’s home companion service. Once a week, my companion Rotem comes by. She has been a godsend. If I have errands to run or shopping to do, Rotem pushes me around in my wheelchair like a champ! If I’ve nothing specific to do, we just sit in the living room for a couple hours, playing Scrabble, listening to music, chit-chatting. Rotem is a very personable young Israeli woman, extremely smart and funny, and very interested in learning about LGBTQ history from this Elder in the Tribe. She has become a valued friend in addition to a helper. I always enjoy her visits.
People like Gregg, Nick, and Rotem, and the other volunteers and staff at Shanti enable people like me to live fuller, more rewarding, more satisfying lives as active members of this community we love so much. Oh! I started writing again! My husband Rick convinced me that I simply must write again. I am now a Senior Editor for A&U: America’s AIDS Magazine, where I also write a monthly column and features — like my feature article on Brendan McHugh’s incredible work on the “Shanti Projects” archival website (https://aumag.org/2020/04/23/shanti-projects-gallery/).
Consider it my love letter to the staff and volunteers at Shanti!
Senior Editor, A&U: America’s AIDS Magazine
22 May 2020