Yesterday, I was determined to watch Oprah. She was going back to the small town of Williamson, WV, where she'd done her show following the closing of a public swimming pool after an HIV+ man used it. I remember seeing this episode 23 years ago. I was a closeted college student at the time, and was worried that even watching the show would give hints to my sexual orientation, but I was determined to watch it.
Here is a trailer for the return show. It's interesting how some of those old feelings returned as I watched the show yesterday. The fear and hatred in that 1987 audience was as thick as pea soup, and I loved that Oprah brought back the folks who most stood out. It was also interesting to learn that one of Mike Sisco's sisters, and a child that he used to babysit have since come out of the closet, both of them citing Sisco as both a hero and an inspiration. Indeed he was. I would not have been brave enough to sit before my whole town the way he did. And I now wonder how many closeted people were in that audience either joining the mob or sitting silently in horror.
Of the guests who were particularly cruel to Sisco that Oprah brought back, only two of the three offered apologies to Sisco's family, and both, solid Christians I am sure, argued that compassion both for Sisco and his family was missing in that room 23 years ago. The remaining cruel guest, now a radio talk show host, spent most of his time on air trying to justify his prejudices, and everyone else in that room seemed to be aware of the fact that he was more sorry that he was seen in a bad light, than sorry about the basis for his vitriol.
It was a confusing time for me in the late '80s/early '90s. I was afraid to do anything, and that continued even after I came out in '93. Thankfully, I grew less concerned about what others thought, but the spectre of HIV haunted me for a long time, too long in my estimation. It certainly helped to have a cousin who is both gay and a doctor, and one who has dedicated his practice to helping those with HIV. I've learned so much from him and his patients over the years, and let the fear go.
That seemed to be the message that Oprah conveyed yesterday: the importance of letting go of fear. I am sorry that Mike Sisco did not make it to see Oprah return, and it would have been especially nice to see him confront that man who was "repulsed" by Sisco and "his lifestyle" (a phrase I loathe deeply). Personally, I am so glad that that fear from the late 80s has essentially gone, and "the gays" have moved more and more into the mainstream of American life. I wish that all of those who died from complications related to HIV, particularly the gay men, could be here now to see how far we have come.