Thoughts on the Building of Outliers: A Queer History Exhibit #2

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Written by Tom Miller

Today I am going through the boxes of publications I have looking for obituaries of people who died from AIDS and HIV-related complications.

It is hard work.

At one point in our discussions, James suggested a display case full of pill bottles and obituaries. When he first mentioned it, we both stopped cold, considering the idea. It is brutal and pointed. It pulls no punches in describing the life of a person with AIDS/HIV. It was cabinets full of pill bottles, and more than likely death at the end. We considered the display, considered its impact, and, with actually very little reservation, decided to do it. As I said in my previous post, this is not an easy exhibit, either to create or to view. But it is vital that this history not be forgotten.

The process of locating these materials is tough. I find the article, and there’s a little start of joy, because I’ve found what it is I was looking for. And then I scan the obituary to see if AIDS/HIV are mentioned. And I look at the picture, a smiling, happy face, though many possess those little edges of fear in their eyes that I often recognize in my own photographs. I ask myself if it’s right to be doing this, to be using this last memorial to a loved one as part of a display in a museum. Am I being respectful of the people whose lives were irrevocably shattered the day that this person died?

But then I remember something I read somewhere – that we actually die two deaths. The first is of our physical presence, of our bodies. The second is when the last person who knew you, or remembers you, dies.

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The Outliers Exhibition is all about remembering. For many of us, those of us who lived through some of the eras under scrutiny, either here in Calgary or elsewhere, it is a remembrance of things that we may not want to remember. Such memories are, however, fundamental to who we are now. I would not trade the strength I feel now for a kinder experience as a queer kid in school. The key is to use that strength, one born of adversity, to make sure that no one else has to experience what I experienced. It’s the Batman protocol.

For many who were not part of the community, it will be a different kind of remembering. It will be an inflection of memory, an adjustment, one hopes, to see that there was a war being waged, 40+ years long, to eradicate a whole segment of humankind.

So, in memory, in the interest of….no, the necessity to remember the people who weren’t fortunate enough to see the changes we’ve wrought, I hope people will look at these obituaries, and read the names, as I am right now, and thank these lost comrades for once more stepping into the breach, for once more putting a face to the plague that ravaged our community for decades.

I hope that people will stop and look at these names and faces at the exhibit. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for the lost to live again, even if briefly?