Ten years ago today Richard Rouilard died of what his Los Angeles Times obituary called “the complications of AIDS.”
Yes, we know the drill: “Nobody dies of AIDS — they die from the diseases they become subject to because of AIDS.” But it’s more than a little silly to say that Michael Callen expired from tuberculosis (one of the host of ailments he contracted during his lengthy struggle) or that a mere “liver disease” necessitated Larry Kramer getting a transplant. Yes, complications. It’s like the REM song goes
“Oh no I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough”
And there’s far from an “enough” when it comes to Richard. Odd to think that I knew him a little less than twenty years. For looking back (memory invariably alters space and time) it seems like an enormous span whose beginning can’t really be isolated and whose end will never truly arrive. People like Richard will always remain.
It was an otherwise unremarkable afternoon at the (late and much-missed) Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when he came up to me about something or other (who remembers what) when we began to talk. Right away it seemed less the start of a conversation than the continuation of one that had begun long before. For we didn’t merely laugh at the same jokes or share the same frame of political or cultural references. It was in the timing and the inflections that we discovered we were, as Star Trek fans would say, in “Vulcan Mind-Meld.” So we laughed a lot then, and laughed even more when we both found ourselves at The Advocate, which Richard worked long and hard to reshape into national phenomenon, rather than a “boutique” publication narrowed to gay “demographic” alone. The result was a number of important stories that caught the “mainstream’s” eye — the most spectacular of which was Michelangelo Signorile’s “outing” of Pete Williams — then working as chief assistant to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. As the piece pointed out, his job was protected while those of gay and lesbian soldiers who had just served in “Operation Desert Storm” were not. And thus Gays in the Military was rocket-launched into the national consciousness.
“Born to a French flight attendant who abandoned him, Rouilard was reared by adoptive parents in New Jersey who were horrified by the effeminate boy’s emerging homosexuality. Certain he was ‘this horrible thing,’ he attempted suicide atage 13 and again at 14. he went through six years of psychotherary to learn to accept his homosexuality. When his parents spurned him, he returned to using his birth mother’s surname.”
What is it with flight attendants anyway — especially French-speaking ones? Yes it’s a classically gay male profession, as Randy Shilts reminds us via his most famous invention “Patient Zero.” But for little Dickie Katz, taking his mother’s surname meant much more. Naturally, Richard Rouilard sounded absolutely fabulous. Moreover he could forgive the mother who put him up for adoption (she had her reasons after all) far more than the family that took him in, and threw him out. But all gays and lesbians are orphans at heart (Mary Cheney being the exception that proves the rule.) We are born into alienation, and spend the better part of our lives inventing familes of our own, sometimes reconciling with blood relations, sometimes not. Richard’s family included his lover Bob Cohen, but extended to all sorts of people on both a professional and personal level. In fact it was often difficult to find out where one ended and the other began. Journalist Mary McNamara captured Richard best in a piece about his last days.
“The nurse was still there when I arrived, unhooking the IV from the shunt that protruded from Richard’s chest. From his heart. Richard had been diagnosed with HIV long before I met him, had suffered from a seemingly endless variety of AIDS-related illnesses for as long as I had known him, but because of who he was, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that he would die. Until I saw that shunt. It stopped me in the doorway. It took my breath away. It still does.
“Free at last, thank the Lord, I am free at last,” he said, pulling on his shirt. The nurse made noises about taking it easy, which he waved away like the smoke from his cigarette. In minutes it seemed we were getting into the car. There were no seat belts. “Seat belts?” he said. “Honey, this car ain’t built for seat belts.”
And with an almost redundant squeal of rubber, we were off.
By the time we hit Wilshire, I swear we were doing 60. I had braced myself, feet planted, arms locked, for the crash I knew was inevitable, but Richard, Richard was sailing along, one hand on the wheel, the other waving off anyone–pedestrians, other drivers–who seemed even close to getting in his way. One light after another flashed amber, and he floored it, his head thrown back, his mouth wide in a great roar, like a lion, like a warrior. He turned to me and the roar became laughter, huge laughter, unassailable, unstoppable, unquenchable laughter.”
That laughter was infectious — in manner far more potent than HIV. We laughed a lot in his last year, when Richard and Bob rented a house right on the boardwalk in Venice. On Sundays he’d have Gaywatch. Margueritas would be served as Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall and Callas intoning “Ebben? ne andro lontana” from La Wally blasted from the stereo while we rated Les Boys as they paraded by.
And who could forget “Crossover,” that fabulous passover service where Richard, doing the honors, would replace ever mention of Jehovah with Anne Baxter, in honor of her performance in The Ten Commandments ?
But then there was the non-fun. For the 1990’s was an enormous parade of funerals. Most of it’s a blur now. I remember the memorial for Paul Monette — where we all expected him to walk right in just to have the last word. Most heartbreaking was the one held at Atlas, for that marvelous restaurant’s owner, Mario Tamaya. He was one of Richard’s oldest friends and I remember at the service’s end Richard clutching someone (can’t recall who) and sobbing as I’d never seen him sob before. Clearly he knew he was next.
And being supremely practical for all his seeming flightiness, Richard had made plans. He was to be cremated and his ashes speand at sea.
“Just drop me off in the ‘Bu,’ right between David Geffen’s and Sandy Gallin’s.”
The boat ride (as we all came to call it) was a lovely occasion. Very simple, very relaxing, very Richard. And it perfectly encapsulated what Patrice Chereau was talking about when he said his Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train was about “the positive side of funerals.”
Funerals can be messy — especially if the deceased was gay, and the family who rejected him in life wants the corpse as a trophy. That all-too-frequent occurence didn’t happen with Richard. Only his friends – his real family – were there. And such was his life, that in death there was no place for Auden’s “Funeral Blues” — the memorial of choice
“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever; I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood,
For nothing now can ever come to any good.”
Rather in Richard’s case the Stevie Smith poem read by Nathan Cogan in Chereau’s film (evoking the voice of the deceased rather than the mourners) more tellingly applies:
“In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away,
Whither and why I know not nor do I care.
And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter,
And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.
In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye,
And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink,
I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going,
I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don’t know what I think.”
I wonder what Richard would think of the this week’s Newsweek cover story with its de rigeur lede
“At a time when the mere threat of avian flu or SARS can set off a coast-to-coast panic—and prompt the federal government to draw up contingency plans and stockpile medicines—it’s hard to imagine that the national response to the emergence of AIDS ranged from indifference to hostility. But that’s exactly what happened when gay men in 1981 began dying of a strange array of opportunistic infections. President Ronald Reagan didn’t discuss AIDS in a public forum until a press conference four years into the epidemic, by which time more than 12,000 Americans had already died. (He didn’t publicly utter the term “AIDS” until 1987.) People with the disease were routinely evicted from their homes, fired from jobs and denied health insurance. Gays were demonized by the extreme right wing: Reagan adviser Pat Buchanan editorialized in 1983, “The poor homosexuals—they have declared war against nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.” In much of the rest of the culture, AIDS was simply treated as the punch line to a tasteless joke: “I just heard the Statue of Liberty has AIDS,” Bob Hope quipped during the rededication ceremony of the statue in 1986. “Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Fairy.” Across the river in Manhattan, a generation of young adults was attending more funerals than weddings.”
“As AIDS made its death march across the nation, killing more Americans than every conflict from World War II through Iraq, it left an indelible mark on our history and culture. It changed so many things in so many ways, from how the media portray homosexuality to how cancer patients deal with their disease. At the same time, AIDS itself changed, from a disease that killed gay men and drug addicts to a global scourge that has decimated the African continent, cut a large swath through black America and infected almost as many women as men worldwide. The death toll to date: 25 million and counting. “
But who’s counting? Surely not BushCo. Surely not The Creature From the Blog Lagoon or many others who fall under the heading of that ever-comforting fiction, “the gay community.”
I’ve written about AIDS’ first stirrings and and how things stood at the time Richard died. A lot has happened since then. The “Protease inhibitor cocktail” has proven a success for many of those who’ve been lucky enough to have acces to it, less so for others . And then there are the millions world-wide who can’t even dare dream of such medical treatment.
Clearly there was a “hump” of sorts in the late 90’s. Some seropositives were able to jump over it and are happily still with us today.
And that’s why the last word belongs to the man Newsweek probably would have preferred to avoid, Larry Kramer:
“Don’t you dare tell me there’s any good news in this,” says Larry Kramer, who has been raging against the disease—and those who let it spread unchecked—since it was first identified in 1981. “We should be having a national day of mourning!” . . .. “The only thing that makes people fight is fear. That’s what we discovered about AIDS activism,” Kramer says.
You’re only right, Larry. That’s why Richard loved you. No “complications” about that.