Karen Ocamb

AIDS at 30: Birthdays & Dead Friends

Filed By Karen Ocamb | May 31, 2011 10:15 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: ACT UP AIDS Coffin Project, Chip Howe, HIV/AIDS, Johnny Pipkin, Lisa Phillips, Mark Thompson, Mary Fisher, Michael Callen, Paul Monette, Salome Jens, Stephen Pender, William Hoffman

Johnny Pipkin (r) and a fellow actor friend

I am accompanying the AIDS LifeCycle 2011 riders this year as an embedded reporter. I will be feeding reports to FrontiersLA.com and probably more personal stories to my blog, LGBT POV, starting June 4. Additionally, my reports -- as well as stories from other embedded bloggers/videographers and photographers--will appear on the AIDS LifeCycle website. But I expect this seven-day journey to be as cathartic and life-changing for me as it will surely be for the 3,000 or so official participants.

To give you some sense of why, here's a feature I wrote for the March 8, 1996 issue of Frontiers. The combination-therapy medical breakthrough had been announced at the 1995 International Conference on AIDS, but the life-saving medications were not yet available to most people. And no one knew what to do with our overwhelming grief. On this 30th anniversary of the first report of AIDS, many of us still suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from losing a whole generation of friends, lovers and family.

If AIDS had ended and was only a memory, this would be a time for sober reflection and letting go. But in fact, HIV/AIDS is increasing among a new generation of gay and bisexual men--many in communities of color still stuck with the stigma of homophobia. So while my story is 15 years old, it could very well be happening now, to someone else somewhere in America, and certainly in the rest of the world.

Birthdays & Dead Friends

It is a habit during birthdays to reflect on the past, make plans for the future and rearrange the present furniture. It is a vain attempt to initiate change in an increasingly constant universe. But as I dust off age, replace one picture with another, shove around the perpetually unoccupied love seat, a spiritual exhaustion overtakes me. Everything I touch reminds me of a friend dead from AIDS. Sometimes being alive is so unfair. Why did they die and not me?

On Jan. 24, I turned 46. I never expected to see this many years accumulate. Surely, with all the drinking, drugging, sexcapades and suicidal tendencies, I wouldn't live beyond 30. Who would want to? But then I got clean and sober and a big shift occurred: I wanted to live. Too ironically, this awakening happened in 1980, just before AIDS hit the headlines. The disease would soon intertwine with my recovery.

The first person I knew who died of AIDS was a brilliant actor from Salome Jen's acting class. It was 1984. I had recently moved to Los Angeles and, as a prospective theatrical writer, I was taking acting classes to learn what actors would do with my words. Although courageous with their feelings for a scene, no one wanted to confront AIDS, the stigma or the descending death culture. No one except Salome, who had become this orphaned actor's family.

AIDS smacked me in the kisser when my 12-Step sponsor Stephen Pender became sick in 1985. In those days, we thought any germ was potentially deadly, so Stephen made us all wear masks and gloves and we weren't allowed to hug him after he got his Hickman catheter. One day, as we were sitting on his couch, Stephen tossed a paperback play in my lap. It was Bill Hoffman's As Is, with a personal inscription.

"You want this? It's yours," Stephen said. I murmured thank you but left it, saying I'd pick it up later. I had a rush of "magical thinking"--as if by taking the play I'd be hastening his death.

I was with Stephen when he died in May 1986. I stayed in his Cedars Sinai hospital room, packing up his belongings and waiting for other friends. As his body grew cold, I thought about As Is in the custody of his vulture family. I looked around for something else. Since Stephen was a writer, I took a pen. After his lover Patrick surreptitiously retrieved the play, I created a special place for Stephen's pen and the play--even after I fell in love and moved in with my new lover.

A few months later, Johnny Pipken got very sick. I refused to be as helplessly ignorant as I was with Stephen, so I took an AIDS Project Los Angeles Home Care Training Course. It enabled me to love and care for him with his other friends at a time when his older, very religious family refused to believe he was gay or had AIDS. They virtually abandoned him to us. When Johnny died, one of his ex-lovers took over, boxing up his belongings for charity. I took his AA and Course in Miracles books plus tons of plays. I read a lot when my lover and I broke up.

When Chip Howe died, his mother gave me an antique ink-and-quill penholder, lots of plays, videos, music and a blue suit jacket I often wear to events about which I'm reporting. Each time I put it on, a bit of Chip is with me. I like taking him to witness our history unfolding.

Actors Deborah Roventini, Chip Howe and me in the mid-80s

Chip Howe's parents being interviewed at a display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in Orange County (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

Wearing Chip's blue jacket to interview new LAPD Chief Willie Williams and Medal of Valor winner Sgt. Lisa Phillips

Over the years, my dead friends have decorated and redecorated my apartment. Once I surrounded my Virginia Woolf portrait on the wall behind my computer with pictures, memorial programs and named coffin postcards from the ACT UP Coffin Project.

ACT UP AIDS Coffin Project postcard

To me it was a Wall of Love. But to the computer repair guy, it was horrifying to have death stare you in the face everyday. Eventually I took down the pictures and put up a dead friend's painting of an open blue door on a deserted Mexican street. Behind this door is a theater for madmen only.

I don't do shrines anymore. I don't have to. My whole space is filled with dead friends keeping watch. Like Chris Schott's plaid teddy bear or Mark Thompson's Greek-like portrait of Michael Callen--who'd rather be Barbra Streisand. In my AIDS-humor twist, the picture is juxtaposed with my Shakespeare skull, making Michael both Hamlet and "poor Yorick."

Makr Thompson's portrait of Michael Callen

Sometimes a space is empty until magically filled. Every time Nipsy, my Jack Russell, crawls under the computer table, I think of Paul Monette and his dog, Puck, who did the same. Sometimes I wonder--if I died, would Nipsy die of a broken heart as Puck did?

Paul Monette, Mary Fisher and Puck (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

That is why birthdays are so spiritually exhausting: sometimes a constant heartache is too much to bear. But then AIDS is everywhere I am by choice. Because I want to remember. My dead friends remind me how much I have loved.

Mark Thompson's portraits of Paul Monette and Michael Callen keep an eye on me (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

(Crossposted at LGBTPOV)

Recent Entries Filed under Living:

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

Very powerful, Karen. Thank you.

Eric Payne | May 31, 2011 2:58 PM


Though the CDC reported, in it's weekly update, that a previously dormant pneumonia was being seen in men identified as being gay, that update was the federal government equivalent of an Interoffice Memo.

The New York Times broke the news, nationally, that gays were being killed on July 3, 1981.

The NYT did not make a connection between this news report - though it used some of the CDC Health Alerts as background material - and the previous month's CDC Update.

Even worse, the Centers for Disease Control didn't make a connection between a previously rare, viral induced cancer and a previously rare, viral induced pneumonia both striking gay men. They didn't make that connection for another 3 to 4 years.

And, in the meantime, we died.

Eric Payne | May 31, 2011 3:48 PM

Any of us who are still living, who were alive 30 years ago, can appreciate what you've written, and, especially, what you've lived through.

I just stumbled upon something today that is a "must read." In fact, it should be read, aloud, to any teen-ager, in any high school class, again and again, until the thought of sex without a rubber vanishes from their mind.

30 years ago, in July, Dr. Lawrence K. Altman wrote the first NYT article about sick homosexuals.

This - http://www.nytimes.com/1981/07/03/us/rare-cancer-seen-in-41-homosexuals.html - is his 30 year look-back.

I remember in the early 1980's that Spanish Military Personnel were forbidden from visiting certain places, primarily Haiti, during leaves out of fear for the disease and that the rapid spread in certain American cities might occur in Madrid, Barcelona, Algeciras, Seville..and back then, every new day had a story of someone who insisted that they had no risk factors yet had been diagnosed when Kaposi sarcoma appeared....it was honestly scary til better data came out...