John Sheridan & Bruce Coleman
“It was an open and liberating time. We were all looking forward to the future and it seemed like things were finally getting better. There had been gay liberation, the women’s movement, civil rights movements. There were all these movements forward.” John Sheridan [left] is originally from Virginia. His husband, Bruce Coleman [right], grew up in New Jersey. Here, they speak with masc about their lives in New York City during the 70s and 80s, what led them to Cork, and the haunting parallel between both places – then and now.
Describing the moment following Stonewall, John paints a picture of a thrilling and heady time to be gay; rich with possibility and optimism, the community instilled with a newfound confidence that life-limiting, overbearing social mores would soon be dispensed with. Bruce, who showed up at the Stonewall riots, positions the reality for him up until that point: “I had a degree in pre-law, but I couldn’t plan on going into law. I couldn’t sit the Bar, I couldn’t plan on going into any profession because homosexuals were completely banned. All through the seventies that began to change. I was hopeful.”
Our contemporary understanding of the cruelty that would quickly follow this moment of great upheaval makes it difficult to fully appreciate this joyous, giddy sense of life starting anew. In 1981, a former lover contacted Bruce, telling him about a “peculiar new disease” being talked about and that he should be careful. As he puts it, that was the end of his fun – and the beginning of his activism.
A trickle of diagnoses quickly graduated into something tidal, overwhelming a period without testing or deep knowledge, washing away any sense of reassurance. John describes the ensuing helplessness: “In my mid-twenties, I ran out into the streets and screamed, ‘Hey! If you don’t do something, all of these people are going to die. It’s not just that person – it’s everybody, it’s me. If you don’t do something, everyone is going to die.’ Government, everyone, just looked at us and said, ‘Yeah’. They did nothing and we just watched everybody die.” Before long, this anguish was joined by anger, and anger led to action.
Former dancers, the pair met while attending the same audition in 1982. Both were cut at the same time. They hung around in the locker room for a while before abandoning their next audition in favour of having a drink together. And that was that. Working in show business, they lived international lives. Based on different continents, they saw a lot of each other nonetheless. Four years after meeting, John was diagnosed with HIV, following a period of sickness. He returned to New York and gave up his theatre career to be in a position where he could get health insurance.
The time was one defined by fear and not knowing. Without the availability of reliable testing, presumption, underscored by a fatalist resignation, reigned. Bruce explains: “For the longest time, we thought we were both HIV positive. I had friends dying all around me and I had no reason by my behaviour to believe that I was exempt. It took me until well into [John’s] situation for there to be something you could do about it, before I could get a test. Assuming I was positive, I turned out not to be. I was negative and still am. But I assumed I was.”
Heavily involved members of the community, their activism centred around a support group that met in a New York hospital which housed one of the main AIDS clinics. Faithfully, for ten or twelve years, they would moderate that group, meeting and getting to know people for a few months until they died, until it was time to start over and repeat. Bruce begins: “Every week there would be new people infected, or family members, or people at the clinic who were trying to to deal with…” John continues: “We worked with people who were infected and affected. We dealt primarily with the mental health issue of just accepting and dealing with HIV and AIDS in your life when at that point it was a death sentence.”
While this group was John and Bruce’s focus, they describe “fabulous” meetings in Room 101 at the Gay Community Centre. Larry Kramer was there, ACT UP New York meetings were held there and hundreds of people attended. Beyond that, John says, “there were the street marches that ACT UP became famous for, and the die-ins. And there were those of us who were busy working, organising, making sure the people that were doing the die-ins could get somebody to bail them out afterwards.” In its tactical approach, the activism of this period drew on the successes that followed Stonewall, those which AIDS brought to a stuttering, premature halt.
Plainly, the period was at once marked by horror and heroism. I ask John where hope and strength were drawn from amidst such hardship. What was there to cling to? His answer is as humble as it devastating: "It was individuals who made you hang on. One particular friend who said one thing that just made you go, ‘Oh, yes’ – and you just kept going on after they died."
Some time later, the two swapped New York for Cork. Friends had long since died, gentrification had priced them out of their neighbourhood, and 9/11 had ruined the two things Bruce was into – show business and concierge work. John, with improved health thanks to new treatments, had returned to university. Their lives were reset once again. Replacing the bustling city with a thriving town proved therapeutic.
Today, they are involved in ACT UP Cork, which was founded last year. I query what drove them to agitate around HIV and sexual health once more. Simply put: the resuscitation of old angers. Although the battleground has shifted, the war in which they were caught up in has more or less followed them across space and time. John is emphatic: “I came [to Ireland] as a contributing member of society. I’ve been productive and I’ve had a whole life given back to me by new HIV medication. In a sense, I can accept the fact that I went through all that horror if I know that I was the last generation to have to, that nobody else would have to go through that. Now, once again, I am living in a place where there are more people being diagnosed with HIV than there should be. It baffles me. It’s not necessary.”
As has been widely publicised, new HIV diagnoses in Ireland are at their highest level in a decade. Echoing his partner, Bruce calls the current state of affairs “needless”; a second silence around the issue reflected in political resistance to a more meaningful approach to public health, and religious resistance to relevant and robust sex education in schools. He notes familiar challenges in Cork: “It’s inexcusable that [Ireland’s] second city should be so far behind, way behind standard practices all over the world in dealing with this. There’s stigma, there’s lack of follow-up, there’s lack of commitment by the clinics, there’s lack of knowledge among rural doctors about spotting [HIV]. There’s a huge amount of work to be done down here."
Their frustration is palpable. While a greater sense of urgency from the relevant institutions and organisations is one thing, the need for more people to “be willing to step out of the HIV closet and speak up”, as Bruce puts it, cannot be overstated. However, as is John’s experience, stigma, or the idea of stigma, is never too far away. He explains: “I just wish people wouldn’t worry about what the neighbours think. Anyone who I have told my status to has always given the same positive response. But, repeatedly, they’ve also warned me, ‘don’t tell other people, because other people might not [react the same way].’ Because people are always worried about what ‘other’ people might think, that creates a problem where they’re warning you about it possibly existing.” In short, its this prophesying or anticipation of stigma, one that might not even be there, that too often creates it.
Both John and Bruce agree that until more people come out and own their status, and put themselves forward to share their experiences, HIV “will languish in past attitudes”. For everyone else, the root and route of progress has changed little over time. In reminding me what that is, it’s unsurprising that many of the words John chooses are those which dominated the original ACT UP New York vocabulary, such is their enduring relevance today: “Knowledge is power. The more you read, the more you know. The more you know about HIV, the more you feel better about it. It’s only ignorance that creates fear. The more knowledge you create, the less fear, the less difficulties, the less stigma there is. Inform yourself, and help all those around you to feel informed.” Its in recognition of people like John and Bruce, who survived, and in memory of the friends, lovers and strangers who did not, that we take those words seriously.