This is a story of friendship, love, loss, and drag told with humour and compassion. In 1977, the author, then a naïve young man, escapes his pulp and paper mill town in northern New Brunswick and goes in search of his gay self. After two years studying in Toronto, he moves to Edmonton, begins his career as a prison guard and timidly comes out into the gay scene. A lasting and sometimes tumultuous friendship develops with Joe, a drag queen and in the summer of 1982 they move to Vancouver in anticipation of fun times and promising futures. Their world changes when they're swept into the eye of the AIDS storm, a time when testing positive for HIV was considered a death sentence. Written in diary form this is an unflinching account of Joe from before testing positive for HIV until his death. This is an intimate look at the impact AIDS had on the author's family of gay friends and those around them.
About the author
Robert has called Vancouver home since 1982, but grew up in the small town of Northern, New Brunswick. As he reaches his golden years, it feels like he's been writing forever - poetry, short stories, scripts for stage and film, and journaling his gay life since 1988. He is a past Canadian Film Centre Writer Resident, twice Praxis Fellow, and most recently a participant in the Playwright Theatre Centre's Wrightspace Residency program, work shopping his current stage play, based on his memoir, Our Story: Coming Out in the Times of HIV and AIDS.
He has been in love with theatre, the movies, and television all his life, and writing has saved his sanity. His heroes in high school were not the jocks, but those who acted in the school plays. If high school was not prison enough, he followed that up with eighteen years of working in Corrections, as a jail guard, Probation Officer, and Community Correctional Worker. For the last fifteen years, in his favorite "day job" of all, he's been working on the front lines of poverty, addiction, and homelessness, with the disadvantaged in Vancouver's Downtown South.
Excerpt: Our Story: Coming out in the time of HIV and AIDS (by (author) Robert Hamilton)
June 20, 1993 - Ray picked me up at the airport when I arrived last night. By the time we got to his place, it was time for him to go to bed. He's been running his own company for the past few years, Can-Am Air Conditioning, so he has an early start in the morning. Ray gave me a heads up about how shocked I will be when I see Joe. I woke up early this morning, had a cup of tea and eventually got ready to walk over to Joe's place. I called first to let him know I was on my way. I had put all negative thoughts about seeing Joe out of mind; however, on arrival I approached his apartment building with much trepidation. I had not given any thought to how uncomfortable this might be for Joe or me, or how difficult it might be for him to open his door and allow me in. I thought I would just be happy to see him, and he would be just as happy to see me. I buzzed Joe's suite. It took a bit of time for him to answer. I said "Hi, it's me."
In a weak voice he said, "Come on up," and buzzed me in. Stepping out of the elevator, knocking on his door, and waiting for Joe to answer was distressing. Mickey and Ray were right. Joe's appearance was shocking. He was a rack of bones wrapped in his burgundy, terry cloth housecoat.
Joe said, "Scary, eh?" ... I said, "No, but thin and sick looking, yes." ... We moved onto his balcony with its million-dollar view. It was a nice enough day. Joe sat with his face to the wind. He said the wind helps him breathe more easily. He said he hadn't heard from two close friends in the past few months and was very hurt by it. This week he was questioning his worth as a person while on this earth. We talked about it and ended up laughing. He joked, at least he can proudly say, as a man he got to wear some really pretty dresses. In the end, we agreed that he should be proud. I teared up when he was telling me about his visit with his mom. He smoked pot in front of her. He said at first it felt odd smoking in front of her, but she understood it helped with his pain and appetite. He asked her to smoke pot with him, but she wouldn't. He told his mother what she can do for him is to not let the family refer to him as that fruit that died from that gay disease. He wants her to tell them that he is her gay son who died of AIDS and it's not a gay disease. He suggested his mother confide in those close to her so she has support when he passes. She said she had already done so. Joe doesn't want to go home now for a visit because he's looking too thin and sickly. He would rather they remember him the way he was. The only medication he's taking is one pill for the herpes sores that line the inside of his stomach and morphine for the pain. He says he knows exactly when his four hours are up and it's time to pop another morphine pill. While sitting on the balcony and smoking pot, we watched two middle-aged Asian ladies going in and coming out of the apartment building across from us. They were moving out or helping someone else move. With each trip out of the building the two carried armfuls of stuff that they shoved into their parked car. In no time, Joe and I had them pegged as the Asian Thelma and Louise and what they were packing into the car was everything they were taking with them on their weekend camping trip. We debated which one was Thelma and which one was Louise, but it became obvious when the one lady came out of the building carrying a microwave. She was obviously Thelma, the ditzy one. Who else would take a microwave on a camping trip? The other lady, Louise, came out carrying a child's tricycle. Joe and I decided that was obviously for their quick getaway.
Before leaving, Joe wanted me to walk with him the few blocks over to Main Street so he could go to the bank. He was slow moving and unsteady on his feet. He did his best to hide his frailty. While at the bank, I watched him snap at someone for staring at him. He hated being stared at. After the bank, we started walking back towards his apartment. We moved slow but steady and halfway there Joe became irritated with himself. He had wanted to stop in at the 7-Eleven to buy a Popsicle. The morphine gives him serious dry mouth and Popsicles provide relief. Joe waited on the sidewalk while I hurried back to the 7-Eleven. When I returned, I handed the Popsicle over to Joe and immediately knew it was a dumb move on my part. I should have first broken the Popsicle in two. Now that Joe had the Popsicle there was no way in hell he was giving it back to me. It was his opportunity to prove that he was stronger than he appeared and quite capable of breaking the damn Popsicle in half. I had no choice but to stand back and watch. Joe put all his strength into breaking that fucking Popsicle in two but couldn't. The Popsicle ended up breaking into several pieces and fell onto the ground except for one small piece that remained on the one stick. Joe stood so vulnerable before me and in the moment I sensed he absolutely hated me.
"A brilliantly told and riveting memoir. Told with frank honesty, Our Story brought me into a time that I had never experienced before but after reading has left me changed for the better."
Jamieson Wolf, author of Little Yellow Magnet