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Pride 2018: Coast-to-Coast Activist Reflects on his Journey

By Vincent J. Patti

I came out as gay in 1966. I was 12. My adoptive family would put me out regularly for this. I marched in the New York City Gay Pride March from 1971 until I left the city in 1998.

AIDS descended on NYC in 1979. It was chilling, stomach turning and produced a nuclear level of anxiety in gay men as we began dying in droves. At this time it was called “GRID” (Gay-Related Immunological Deficiency). This ignited an old scapegoat that societies almost all over the world had exploited. “Gay” became the personification of evil, criminality and death that had systematically been associated with gays since the discovery of the word “homosexual” (circa 1870). It was inescapable.

Throughout the early AIDS scourge, we had to go into the hospitals and feed our dying because the nurses were too afraid to serve them their meals. We had to protect gay families because their straight familial cohorts would swoop into their homes and strip everything away from the surviving partner. We had to find funeral homes that would take our diseased and then fight (against their fear of contagion) for open caskets.

In 1982, I became a co-owner and co-director of Chelsea Psychotherapy Associates, the first openly gay group psychotherapy practice in New York City. Two years later our practice had shifted drastically from addressing client issues involving sex and gender to matters involving death and dying. We unwittingly became experts in the field. My three male business partners were lost to AIDS. I survived because I have lupus (these are diametrically opposite immunological diseases).

Very strange things began to happen to my body by the time I came to California in 1998. Nevertheless, the fight for “LGBTQ” rights was marching on. Proposition 8 hit in 2008 and was meant to eradicate any support for marriage equality. We fought hard (especially here in Long Beach) and lost by two percent! A couple of years later same-sex people in California were granted the right to marry.

It was about 10 years ago that I could no longer deny the toll that “full-blown” AIDS and lupus had taken on my body and my mind. I could readily see how close I was coming to a bad death. I joined Compassion & Choices in 2014. All of a sudden I was out there with a sign on my chest and flyers in my hands canvassing throughout Los Angeles and Orange Counties. I must say that I resented some of the initial spokespeople. They were straight, affluent white women who had lost or were losing one nuclear family member to a bad death. AIDS stultified gay culture for two decades, almost completely eradicated the bisexual revolution and bled the emerging LGBTQ community to the bone. I got over it.

What surprised me was nothing I didn’t know but it seemed I had to experience for myself in order to comprehend. One of these things was the (almost animalistic) strength of denial many people showed toward the concept of having to think about the dying process. The other was the multigenerational power of awareness that I found as expressed by families asking question and sharing feelings together.