Joe Gregg thought dying of AIDS was his private affair. He didn't want anyone to know.
After his diagnosis, he told his boss and a couple of friends. Then he pledged them to secrecy. He told his 80-year-old parents in Kansas City that he had been sick but it was nothing. He told his neighbors that he had pneumonia and his doctors thought it best if he be in the hospital for a few weeks.
As co-director and pioneer of the Gerber-Hart Library, as one of the Advocate's 400 most important gay leaders, as a participant in every gay parade and rally, with his picture in one of the gay papers every few weeks, and as a subject in the NIH cohort study at Howard Brown Memorial Clinic, I told Joe I didn't think he could keep it a secret. Every time we went to a clinic, pharmacy, or doctor's office there were at least half a dozen other guys and their partners there for the same thing. The gay community is a public network; Joe's 'condition' was obvious for all to see.
Strangers and distant acquaintances would call or stop Joe on the street and ask about his 'health.' He would get furious. How could they know? 'I don't want anyone to know!' He was curt and cold with old friends when they would call to express their concern.
I asked Joe, didn't he think it odd that people he barely came in contact with knew, yet he was keeping his close circle of intimate friends in the dark? He saw my point and took steps to correct that situation.
He made 'dates' with each of his intimates and told them. In each case they were loving and forgiving. Joe was surprised and relieved by their understanding. I tried to widen Joe's outreach by saying that even his common friends would understand and be supportive. But Joe decided that he had told enough, and pledged me again to secrecy.
Even before Joe was struck with AIDS himself, he was fighting against the disease. He thought AIDS was sucking too much money, energy and resources from other more pro-life organizations such as Gerber-Hart Library. I told Joe, now that you have AIDS, you could even be more effective in making your case for help to non-AIDS services, and become an even more convincing fundraiser for the library. He told me that the library was his public life and AIDS his own affair, and he would keep them separate.
Why all this secrecy? Some will point to his early upbringing in the fundamentalist Mormon church. Joe was raised like a child patriarch. His family and church leaders expected that he would be an 'elder' some day. They never detected that even as a boy, Joe had a strong will and a mind of his own: he was going to be totally irreligious and a free spirit. A pagan, a light pagan, not into anything heavy or occult, more an Epicurean, a believer that the gods are distant after-thoughts, who have nothing to do with the nature of things.
Free spirit or not, Joe, even at 50, was still unable to tell his parents and family that he was gay. He choked on the words in their presence. When he would even try to talk about it, his mother would feign ignorance and hand him another religious tract and say, 'My little Joe, you still believe in God don't you?' Joe's father kept the topic from coming up by always talking about baseball and his memories of early Kansas City history.
Joe Gregg was one of the most brilliant and encyclopedic conversationalists that I have ever known. He could talk about movies, naval history, Africa, Renaissance art, City Hall politics, common gossip, city planning, bookmaking, the history of manuscripts, and library science. Yet he choked every time he tried to talk about gay things to his parents, authority, figures, and relatives. He had the same maid for 15 years, and he would de-gay his house, take down the all-male pictures and calendars each time before she came. Just as he de-gayed his house, so I think he wanted to de-gay his death.
Joe's paranoia, however, was not just in Joe's head alone. Even in urban lakefront liberal Chicago Gregg suffered two brutal experiences from people in authority that made Joe feel 'totally violated as a person.'
When he was librarian of the art history department at the University of Chicago in the early '60s, and had attained the academic rank of assistant professor, he went to the student-faculty clinic on a health matter. He had a case of primary anal syphilis. The director of the clinic of this most prestigious university took it upon himself to treat Joe personally. He told Joe that he was 'a disgusting degenerate,' 'unmanly sick' an 'abomination' who should not be a member of the university after contracting this 'vile disease.'
The director prescribed for Joe the maximum number of shots and made sure they hurt each time they were administered. He forced Joe to confess a list of his 'degenerate' partners, and made sure they were all traced and treated by the public health authorities. Then he insisted that Joe undergo immediate psychiatric help to cure his sick mind before he could return to full status at the university.
In the middle of his struggle with AIDS, Joe reversed himself and decided to go public. He had become a true believer in AZT, he wanted to help others by telling his wonderful results with this drug. Dennis Breo, a medical writer and historian-not a common journalist-was researching a long article for the Sunday magazine of the Chicago Tribune. Joe and his doctor trusted Breo because he was a medical man too.
Joe realized that Breo was unfamiliar with the ways of gays, so for background he told him how he came out as a young teenager and what he did as a gay young man. Joe was told that he would be anonymous and the story would focus on AZT.
Anonymous? Breo changed Joe's name to Jim, described him to a T with his age, hometown and gray beard, plus the library where Joe worked. Then he told all about the intimate details of Joe's sex life and little about AZT. Joe was mortified. Now everyone at work knew. The whole world knew. His dying of AIDS had become a public affair.
These experiences took their toll. Joe sank back into his private shell. He cut himself off more from his friends. His happiest moments were listening to music on his headphones or watching his favorite old movies.
When he was diagnosed, one of his physicians, when Joe asked her how long?, said, 'On the average 18 months.' Joe immediately calculated in his head and turned to me and said, 'Well, that means I die in October of ྒྷ. I like October. I will have two falls and two World Series.'
Joe never let go of the idea of dying in October. He mentioned it to me often. It was as though it were his 'due date,' as though someone had stamped that date in the back of his book.
But with life-extending drugs and the best care that money could buy Joe died in November, 15 days past his due date. He went out much like a student meeting a term paper deadline.
What could I never get Joe to see is that death is not a private affair-or a public affair either. It is a private affair that ends in a public notice. But more than that, it is a common affair. I agree with Emily Dickenson that death is a 'party that we all dress up to go to.'
Joe's private friends will love him always. Joe's public reputation is secure as long as there are libraries in general and special libraries for libraries and gay people.
But what Joe forgot were his common friends. And they were all around him, waiting for a word from him, so they could come and show their love, give their support, and say their proper good-byes.
—Reprinted from Windy City Times ( 12/3/87 )