Independent Decade : After the pleasure came the pain

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I first heard the acronym Aids in Dubai, of all places, at dinner with an American woman who had brought along her subscription copy of Time magazine.

She flipped through the pages, found what she was looking for, told me "John, you'll be interested in this" and began to read aloud. And as she did ( "Virus... cancer... immune system... gay men... San Francisco... mystery... methods of transmission...

fatal") - I felt - and this was an instant, instinctive recognition - panic, building to terror, and something else again: a foreshadowing. A dread yet certain sense of one time terminating and another announced. I listened and knew - just knew - that my life, and countless others, would be... derailed.

Anyway, my American friend concluded her recital, pushed her Apocalyptic purchase at me with an almost triumphant, "Well, what do you think about that?" And I remember being pleased that I could answer with a cool flippancy I did not remotely feel: "Marlene, I don't want to think about that."

That was 14 dead friends and acquaintances ago. More than a lifetime - many lifetimes (millions of lifetimes, globally speaking). And the thing I didn't want to think about, I think about every day. With each condom bought.

Whenever my lover signals he's in the mood. As I scan the press for medical updates, cautiously expressed breakthroughs, for names I might know that have gone on ahead. Whenever I notice someone I know has lost a lot of weight, fast. Whenever news of another funeral summons little except deja vu.

You had to be there: I belong to the first 'Out', post-liberation generation of gay men and our existences were meant to be different.

We would not be wilfully oppressed, or repressed; sex would not be dirty or demeaning or dangerous for us. Indeed, we would find and defiantly define ourselves in sex, in the forbidden pleasures the world called our shame.

Looking back - and looking back is difficult, because one is tempted to buy the notion of earthly Paradise - it's easy to see that was always going to be a blind alley (one lesson of Aids - and yes, contrary to cant, HIV and Aids do teach, the vicious little bastards - is that full identity cannot be found solely in sex).

But the exploration was intoxicating, before it turned out to be cruel trick of fate. It was so exquisitely, historically timed. Aids arrived at the pivotal moment when gay culture, gay politics, gay life were fusing, emerging, and its arrival did what bigots hatred could not: made you feel, for this moment, like a filthy little faggot again.

It was a message most of the western media was happy to ride, at the beginning, as rates of infection grew and people you knew were diagnosed and died.

Then, if they lived a year, you counted yourself lucky (or unlucky). And, as the pace quickened, terrible things happened inside your head, because no one outside your disintegrating circle could seem to grasp that it was war, fought in the trenches with untried drugs and experimental therapies, and that losing your hard-gained loved ones shouldn't be happening, not now. No, later, in your fifties, sixties, seventies.

And the primal contradiction was literally killing: out of pleasure had come this apparently permanent pain. And, it became increasingly plain, purpose, of a sort.

If Aids destroyed, it also bizarrely rebuilt. It provided increased visibility, a rallying point, killed artists but galvanised art, made activists out of the most unlikely gay men, took gay issues and gay rights into the heart of political institutions. Taught us, in our anger and grief, to demand and battle, not ask and wait.

In short, our refusal to be victims drove us mainstream, beyond our original ghetto, beyond what could have become siege mentality.

Aids made many gay men take control. And now the word is that the latest "inhibitors" may render Aids "manageable", further tests permitting. Even after so many false dawns, a friend feels moved to call and say "The nightmare's ending", which is, I tell him, a death-wish of another sort. But he's entitled.

This February his blood proved positive, and though he knows, I and many others, have grown conflicted, grown crazed, grown cold on a certain subject, we still don't want to lose our nearest and dearest, So I let his optimism splash over me, while all the time thinking that nightmares never end: some have cost too much, changed you too radically, for you to quietly let them go.

John Lyttle