But why now?
“There is an incredible urgency to undertaking this project now,” Dorsey says. “During my lifetime we will see the passing of the last generation of people who actually experienced the early years of the AIDS epidemic firsthand. We are already rapidly losing our community’s stories.”
It was that necessity that pushed Dorsey to spend two years of his life researching that time period and traveling the country collecting stories from AIDS survivors.
“I think our culture has largely turned our backs not just on the early AIDS epidemic, but also on the generation of survivors who lived through those terrifying early years,” he says. “There was so much terror, so much death, so much mass death and grief that people individually had to pack a lot of it away just to keep functioning. But then we as a culture turned our backs on all those survivors.”
The director of Sean Dorsey Dance for the past 10 years, Dorsey is recognized as the nation’s first acclaimed transgender modern dance choreographer. He is also the founder and artistic director of Fresh Meat Productions, which creates year-round multidisciplinary transgender arts programs in San Francisco.
With The Missing Generation, Dorsey says he hopes to “capture and share part of this important history and reckon with the loss and grief this generation endured. And to collectively face this history and grieve and heal together.”
In some cities, a quarter of all gay and bi men and transgender women died of AIDS-related causes within a few years. It’s a world far removed from the lives of today’s millennials.
“Younger people don’t get taught this history,” Dorsey complains. “But young trans, queer, LGBT people lost an entire generation of elders. People who today would be their mentors, teachers, heroes, gay mothers, gay uncles. We need to grieve this together.”
For GayHistory.Wikispaces.com, Bartlett was able to create a database of men who died by searching obits, hospital records, and registries of both the Names Project Quilt and a local church that buried the unclaimed. But finding trans women lost to the disease is a much harder proposition. During that period many police and medical professionals routinely misidentified trans women as drag queens or transvestites. In death, these women were routinely stripped of their feminine accoutrements and counted by coroners and hospital workers as merely another dead gay man.
As Courtney-Evans recollects, most trans women had been “put out” by their families and were using names they hadn’t been given at birth. They may not have had identification with their real names. So when they died, these women just disappeared.
Many of the dead can be found on the Names Project Quilt, although because of stigma at the time, many of those commemorated with quilt patches were listed only by their first name, a nickname, or simply a single initial.
Perhaps there’s better luck if a trans woman (or man) died in New York City; there’s a project to document paupers’ graves in the city’s potter’s field, Hart Island. HartIsland.net has a database going back to 1980 and is searchable by name (if available), date of death, or where the person died (i.e. the name of a hospital). But be warned: 63,484 people have been buried in mass graves on Hart Island, and all of their stories certainly can’t be told.
But The Missing Generation isn’t as much about documenting those who died as it is about honoring the survivors and healing the pain of their loss — and ours.
“The people I met with were extraordinary,” Dorsey says of his “life-changing” cross-country journey documenting these stories. “These are people who lost dozens, hundreds, as many as a thousand friends and lovers and clients and patients and family. The warmth, generosity, humor, intelligence, insight, and wisdom that everyone shared blew my heart wide open.”
Jimmy Mack, who says that despite telling his story to thousands of middle and high school students in the 15 years since he joined Love Heals, the Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education, talking about those days was still “difficult and emotional.”