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  • Writer's picturePaul Burston

I’m Still Here

On Wednesday, I hosted my final Polari event of the year at Heaven. It was World AIDS Day and many of the readings and song choices reflected this theme. December 1 also marked my 11th month sober.

My walk on music was I’m Still Here sung by Eartha Kitt, who performed at Heaven many years ago, at the height of the AIDS pandemic. Here’s what I said –

That was I’m Still Here, sung by Eartha Kitt and written by Stephen Sondheim, who sadly died last week. It’s a song which has a lot of personal resonances for me, as I’m sure it does for many of you – especially now.

So on behalf of us all, I would just like to say – we got through all of last year and we’re here!

Tonight is our final event of 2021 and we’re marking World AIDS Day.

I’d like to begin by taking you back to World AIDS Day 1989.

This was me on Westminster Bridge, protesting with ACT-UP London. I was 23 when this photo was taken. I was 24 when the first of far too many friends died of AIDS. By the time I was 30, I’d buried half my friends.

In 1993 I became the editor of what was then called the Gay section of Time Out. It was my second staff position, and the second time a job opportunity came along when the previous editor died from an AIDS related illness. The knowledge of this weighed heavily on me.

One day I was at work when I received the news that another friend in New York had been rushed into hospital. I broke down crying at my desk. Later, I wrote a column which appeared the following week. I recently revisited this column as part of my research for a memoir. I’d like to read part of it for you.

“Now, more than anything, AIDS makes me angry. I’m angry in a way I never thought possible. I’m angry at Tim for being the person who relayed the message, and at Georg for being sick and drawing me back to that strange place where people just keep dying and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’m angry at Clive, who slipped away so quietly last month, and at Derek, who made such a noise about living we all thought he’d be with us forever.

I’m angry at the distance between London and New York, and the distance between myself and too many of the people I think of as friends — those helpless, hopeless friends who need to have it explained to them time and again that something truly terrifying is happening and it’s getting harder and harder for me to meet them half way. I’m angry at anyone who doesn’t know what this feels like.

But most of all I’m angry at myself. Angry that I’ve started grieving for someone who isn’t even dead. Angry that I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t grieving for someone. Angry that I shall never grieve for Georg enough, just as I have never grieved for anyone enough. There are too many people to grieve for, and not enough time between funerals to do any of them justice.

So I do what I always do in these circumstances. I prepare to cross out another name in my address book, and implant it in my memory, in the file marked ‘People Who Must Never Be Forgotten.’”

I’m here tonight to tell you that they’re not forgotten. None of them. I remember them all the time, and not just on World AIDS Day. Vaughan, Brian, Gered, Robin, Hugo, Michael, Clive, Colin, Martyn, Derek, Georg, Spud. I love and miss you all.

A lot has changed since I wrote that column. Many people with HIV now live long and healthy lives. But there’s still stigma and they still need our support. It’s why charities like the National AIDS Trust exists, and why they’re here with us tonight. Please give generously and please help fight the stigma. Thank you.

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