Heartbreaking letter explains the ‘deep, pulsating shame and fear’ of growing up gay in the shadow of AIDS

Patrick Kelleher
·2-min read

A gay man has recounted the “deep, pulsating shame and fear” that came with growing up gay in the years after the worst of the AIDS crisis had passed.

The man, named only as Peter, wrote to Irish broadcaster Ryan Tubridy after the Channel 4 series It’s a Sin was discussed on his RTÉ Radio 1 show.

In the letter – which Tubridy read out live on RTÉ Radio 1 on Thursday (28 January) – Peter wrote about what it was like to emerge onto Dublin’s gay scene in 1994 when he was 23 years old.

“I couldn’t help wondering if it had been 10 years earlier would AIDS have killed me, like so many others,” the man wrote.

“At the time, I didn’t realise so many people on the gay scene must have lost friends or loved ones to AIDS or that many men were dead years before their time. I have no recollection of it being spoken about.

“I met many gay men in my time who were living with the gay parts of their lives concealed from family, work colleagues, and friends, living with the constant background hum of fear and shame.”

Peter continued: “For years I was one such man. The underlying feeling was a deep, pulsating shame and fear. I recall the first few times I went to the George, Dublin’s main gay bar, pacing up and down the street, heart pounding, petrified that someone on a bus or in traffic might know me and see me go inside.

“I also recall the heightened sense of shame and self-loathing that ensued for days afterwards.”

Gay men ‘died alone’ during the AIDS crisis because of family shame.

When Peter came out to his parents in 1997, he did not get the warm and loving reception he hoped he would. Instead, they were bowled over by shame, and urged him to keep it a secret from aunts, uncles, friends and neighbours.

Reflecting on that conversation, Peter said his parents likely would have walked away if he had been diagnosed with HIV.

He wrote: “Thousands of gay men with AIDS died alone because families were too ashamed of them,” saying that this was “a much greater sin than the sex or sexuality involved in catching the disease”.

Peter concluded: “There are some people who still question the need for Pride. Pride is still needed because for many, shame in sexuality still exists. It’s a terrible tragedy that shame is the reason so many gay men with AIDS died alone and their loved ones were left with guilt and pain, knowing in their hearts that it was wrong. Whether it was a sin is debatable, but it was certainly a tragedy.”