In September 1986 I died of AIDS. That’s me – center in the photo – playing one last game of Scrabble. An hour later, handsome Tony in the white shirt died in the arms of Steve, who left the hospice soon after to spend his final days with his family. I passed quietly, offstage. Five nights a week, above a gay bar in Amsterdam.
A Quiet End by Robin Swados was the first AIDS-themed play staged in the Gay Capital of Europe. Raphael Brandow, artistic director and bar owner, wanted to produce A Normal Heart or As Is, which had critically-acclaimed runs in New York.
But Dutch companies had secured rights to translate both plays for Dutch productions (though neither ever materialized.) He saw Swados’s powerful drama in London and, with its compact cast of four, knew it was a perfect fit for his tiny theater.
I played the schoolteacher Max, one of three men living with AIDS. I was the only gay actor in the cast. A week before the opening, a former bartender called me to say it was important that I was in this play – to represent him and other gay men, those living with AIDS, and those who had died. I’d known he was ill, but not how seriously. The following day at rehearsal I heard he had passed during the night. At that moment I began to think of myself as an activist. Two years later I attended the first AIDS Memorial Day ceremony to be held in The Netherlands.
Dutch photographer Frits de Ridder took the production photo seen above. He and I became close friends when we met a year earlier during another production. So it was only natural I interview him for the arts program on Radio Netherlands in 1989 when he mounted his first exhibition: a series of collage-portraits of men and women living with AIDS in New York City’s Bailey House. During the interview, he admitted to me that he was HIV positive himself.
Frits continued to photograph people living with AIDS. He also documented his own battle with the disease in a series of self-portraits. He organized the first AIDS Related Art exhibition during the 1992 International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam. His last exhibition New Heroes opened in July 1994 – one month before his death. Six years later, while attending another AIDS Memorial Day service, I remembered a cassette tape Frits once made for my birthday: musical directions for a bike ride to a lake in the woods just outside the city, a popular gay cruising site. This became the basis for the most personal radio program I ever produced, a meditation on AIDS and activism, art and friendship, which I called Cycling with Frits.
For seven years I wandered through this strange unknown land,
I saw men of great beauty, the beauty of warriors of the old days.
I saw their beauty praised for its nobleness, its fierceness.
I saw great beauty crumble in its flesh.
I saw fierceness corrupt into a shadow, deeper than the despair it concealed.
I saw great beauties, warriors of the old days, weep.
I saw the new heroes emerge.
– Frits de Ridder
I thought about Frits last September. I think about him a lot and miss him often. But this particular occasion was the Amsterdam exhibition of Pride Photo Award’s 2012 winners. Pride Photo Award was established to promote photography that reflects gender and sexual diversity in the LGBTQ community. The focus is on images other than the usual clichés chosen by mainstream media. We may our love pride parades, half-naked revelers, and outrageous drag queens, but there’s more to our stories than those pictures reveal.
I’ve been keeping my oar in activist waters by editing English material for the Dutch organization’s website and newsletters. I’m certain Frits would be pleased. And I believe he would have been drawn, as I was, to the winner of the Open Category: New York photographer Pacifico Silano. More installation than series, Silano’s Where the Boys Are is a collection of images that examine gay life before the AIDS epidemic. The young artist was inspired by a very personal connection.
“My uncle passed away from AIDS in 1989. He was a mystery to me. My family had kept a lot of his story a secret. I started to get really fascinated by this man, who lived during one of the most tumultuous times in gay rights history. He was in his early twenties in the early eighties. He was living in New York. In short, my uncle was right there as it was happening.”
Silano takes photographs but he also makes use of appropriated images, something Frits used to do as well. And an element of this project led directly to another. The compilation of centerfold models from a 70s-80s gay magazine has inspired new work.
“My uncle was the original entry point, but I found that I’m really invested in all those who belonged to the lost generation of gay men who passed away from AIDS. The project I work on now is called Pages of Blueboy Magazine and will be shown at the 2nd AIM Biennial at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. In Amsterdam I had a grid of nine male centerfolds, but now I’ve expanded it to one hundred, because there were a hundred pages in a Blueboy magazine.”
This year AIDS Memorial Day is June 1st in Amsterdam. I am elsewhere. I have been to enough services to know how it will go. Music will play, people will speak, candles will be lit, names will be called, The Rose will be sung, and memories will float through the air like the white helium-filled balloons everyone will release afterwards into sky. It’s always moving to see all those white balloons drifting up, up, and away into the distance together. So many white balloons…