Older Generation Of Gay Men Reflect On Orlando Massacre
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For the last few days, we've been hearing stories of acute pain and sadness here in Orlando. Today we're going to take a step back and talk with some people who experienced similar pain and got through it. Many of the victims at Pulse were young gay men. An older generation of gay men knows what it feels like to lose friends and lovers before their time.
JIM CRESCITELLI: To see these people in their 20s and 30s just dying with no explanation, no understanding of what was going on and no real, you know - no real care was very frightening.
SHAPIRO: Jim Crescitelli is remembering what his life was like in the 1980s and '90s.
CRESCITELLI: We used to keep a list of who was sick and who had died just so we would see that and keep track.
SHAPIRO: The gay community has too much experience with death and tragedy, so today I spoke with three men, friends who have lived in Central Florida for decades and who also lived through the height of the AIDS epidemic. I asked for their perspective on how they got through it, what's different about today and what lessons a younger generation grieving right now can learn from the past.
DON DENNIS: How do you understand what the light is if you've never known darkness?
SHAPIRO: Don Dennis married a woman in 1982 when he was in denial about his sexual orientation and came out six years later. He thinks that may be the only reason he's alive today. At some point in life, he learned the tragedy is a part of the fabric.
DENNIS: In my particular case, I guess it makes it easier to go through what's happening.
SHAPIRO: His friend Steve Rheaume agrees. He joined the Orlando Gay Chorus in the early '90s when members were dying of AIDS. The choir performed again at the vigil in downtown Orlando on Monday.
ORLANDO GAY: (Singing) Keep your head up high, and don't be afraid of the dark.
SHAPIRO: Steve told me at least when you found out someone was dying of AIDS, you could go to the hospital and see them. At Pulse nightclub, people didn't have that opportunity.
STEVE RHEAUME: This is different. It was a lot of people all at once, and there was no way to say goodbye before they were killed - before they died.
SHAPIRO: Some of the people I've talked to this week who lost loved ones in the shooting don't know if they can get through the grief. You're sitting here as somebody who's lost friends and loved ones years ago. What can you tell those people who today are in their 20s, maybe 30-years-old and don't know if they can go on?
RHEAUME: It's hard to believe, it's hard to know now at this point, but you will go on. And I think when you have a strong community that's outpouring, that's there to help you grieve, to help you get through your day to day that is going to carry you through. Even when you've physically and mentally think that you can't do it, the others around you will lift you up.
SHAPIRO: And that may be the biggest difference between the 1980s and today. These men went through their grief nearly alone with few allies to console them. Some people told them gays deserved to die of AIDS.
CRESCITELLI: We had a president who didn't even mention the word for years and years and years. And now we have a president representing these young kids who lights up the White House in rainbow lights. It is such a difference.
SHAPIRO: Jim Kreshatelli told me even the Monday night vigil in downtown Orlando took his breath away.
CRESCITELLI: Thousands of people - you couldn't tell who was straight or gay in that crowd, you know? You see them from afar. The camera is at a distance. You see 7,000 people, and they're just people. And to see that just - it made me cry.
How many times did we not outreach to our dead gay friends families because we had never talked to them about anything, you know. Do you suddenly go to someone's house and say, yeah, your son was one of my best friends. We went out to the gay clubs every weekend. We didn't talk about that stuff out loud. So now I - hopefully, it's a lot better. You can.
SHAPIRO: Jim grew up in Brooklyn, came out as a teenager and moved to Central Florida for love in 1978. Many of his friends in New York didn't survive. I asked how often he thinks of them.
CRESCITELLI: Constantly. Yeah, not 24/7, but they're always with me. My friend Donald, one of my best friends - he died in, like, 1991, 1992. I was in Florida, and not a day goes by where things don't remind me of what he would've appreciated. You kind of keep them - I say it like you keep them on your shoulder. You keep them sitting on your shoulder.
SHAPIRO: He says a life can be erased, but a memory cannot.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
That's our colleague Ari Shapiro reporting from Orlando, Fla.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.