From Kevin Sessums: Day three in Romania

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After I gave an interview to a smart and funny and engaging journalist from the Bucharest magazine Beau Monde late yesterday afternoon here at my hotel, I headed to a screening of the ACT UP documentary “How To Survive a Plague” for a lecture hall of political science students at Bucharest University.

The US State Deptartment payed to have the film subtitled in Romanian for the screening. I sat on a panel to discuss the film afterwards with two HIV activists here in Romania. One is also an LGBT activist I met last summer in Albania at the LGBT human rights conference for the Balkins and Eastern Europe. The other was a Roma man who is an activist for those on the fringes of Romanian society even more so than LGBT people – the homeless, sex workers, drug addicts, etc.

They both used a term I had only used before for the “mainstream media” – MSM. It was explained to me that it means “men having sex with men,” which HIV/AIDS activists prefer here since it signifies an act and not an identity which, in turn, could prove problematic when talking about this issue in Romania.

It is now my fifth time to see the film and tonight, as jet lagged as I am or maybe because of the resultant fatigue, it hit me harder than any of the previous times. I cried almost all the way through it. Knowing so many of the people involved – David France, Peter Staley, Gregg Gonsalves, David Barr, Larry Kramer, Spencer Cox, Garance Franke-Ruta, and Mark Harrington – has always moved me beyond measure. They will always be my heroes. 

But it spoke to me quite personally tonight as well. I shared this with those students gathered in the hall. So I might as well share it with you. Before I got here to Romania there was a maddening mix-up with my own HIV meds back in the states which were being mailed to me yet didn’t reach me in time to make this trip. In fact, they still seem to be lost in the mail somewhere. So I arrived here without them and have finally been able to get the US embassy to give me a prescription for all the components of Atripla, the one pill a day I take.

Here in Romania, however, it will be in the form of four pills a day – one of the doses of the three ingredients of Atripla being a two-pill a day regimen. With all the jet lag I’m feeling I couldn’t chance going without my meds any longer on top of it. So I had to swallow hard and pay out-of-pocket for them and trust the doctor here at the embassy to know what he is doing. The prescription was dropped off at the pharmacy yesterday but it will take 24 hours to get all the pills here to Bucharest.

I tell you all that to point out that the heroics of all those warriors back during their ACT UP days are till having results. Now, almost 20 years on, I am able to find the drugs I need in Romania because of their activism. These brave, smart – yes, loving – people are still saving my life. Although the Roma man made a point to tell me that I am luckier as an American in his country than many of his fellow citizens who don’t have such access to these same drugs. 

I ended the night by reading from a couple of things I pulled up from the internet. One was from an interview I did with the actress Judith Light about how important it is that we know our history as gay men and how we the older generation must share that history with the newest one.

I also read excerpts from a remarkable post that Garance put up about that time in her life when she was an ACT UP member that ran a few months ago on the website for The Atlantic where she is now a senior editor covering national politics.

I ended my remarks last night with one of my favorite quotes. It is from Paul Monette, who died of AIDS in 1995 and was one of Judith Light’s dearest friends. His memoir “Becoming a Man: Half a Life’s Story” won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1992, a kind of coming-of-age itself in the history of gay and lesbian literature.

Another of his books, “Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir,” concerns his lover Roger Horwitz’s own diagnosis of AIDS and subsequent death. Both poetic and terrifying, it is one the most important early accounts of what gay life was like — the cruel day-in-and-day-out every dayness of it — during the epidemic. 

Monette’s stirring essay “3275,” was included in his collection “Last Watch of the Night: Essays Too Personal and Otherwise.”

“3275” referred to the number of Horwitz’s gravesite and was where Monette himself would soon be buried beside him. The last words of that essay were a call to arms. I made that call to these young activists last night in a political science lecture hall in Bucharest when I read them these words written by Monette:

“We queers of Revelation Hill, tucking our skirts about us so as not to touch our Mormon neighbors, died of the greed of power, because we were expendable. If you mean to visit any of us, it had better be to make you strong to fight that power. Take your languor and easy tears somewhere else. Above all, don’t pretty us up. Tell yourself: None of this had to happen. And then go make it stop with whatever breath you have left. Grief is a sword, or it is nothing.”

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Before the screening last night, I was given a private tour of Bucharest’s Cotroceni Palace which was once the home of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie of Romania. I guess I really am gay since I loved the queen’s bedroom the best. The rest of the palace was rather too Germanic since Ferdinand was the German nephew of the previous childless Romanian king. Marie’s bedroom – AKA Missy to her family and friends – was more in the fin de siecle Vienna aesthetic. 

As my sternly polite and officious tour guide gushed about the king’s and queen’s marriage I wanted to ask her about Marie’s lover, Prince Barbu Stirbey, who for a short while was even the Prime Minister of Romania and considered to be the father of two of her children even though the king, to deflect scandal, claimed paternity of them. Indeed, Marie’s correspondence with her longtime secret confidante, the Paris-based American dancer Loie Fuller, revealed “the distaste, which grew to revulsion” that the queen felt for her husband.

I knew to keep my mouth shut after I did have the temerity to “comment” about this Dorothy Parker poem. I even recited it for my tour guide who, after commenting herself – “Who is this American named Dorothy Parker?” – made it clear that she was not amused. 

I, however, was by her non-amusement.

COMMENT

by Dorothy Parker

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,

A medley of extemporanea; 

And love is a thing that can never go wrong; 

And I am Marie of Roumania.

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