My book Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear was published two years ago today. I remember well the thrill of everything leading up to its publication date. The New York Times op-ed revealing a letter Pope Francis had written me about the book. Notes from friends and family who had pre-ordered and received copies a few days early. And the launch parties, where family, friends, colleagues and even a few personalities I wrote about gathered to wish me well. I wasn’t sure what would follow those frenetic few days.
I never anticipated that I would be on the road for the next two years, giving talks at dozens of parishes, high schools, universities, hospital systems and nonprofits. Each event was unique, but the stories in Hidden Mercy always prompted thoughtful questions about the AIDS crisis, invited the sharing of stories new to me about that time in history and included an intergenerational exchange of ideas and wisdom.
I was also unprepared for the number of messages readers would send me. I still receive notes and emails that are sometimes many paragraphs long, filled with anger, sadness, gratitude, inspiration and puzzlement. More than a few people have told me stories they’ve never revealed before. Admittedly, I’m sometimes at a loss for words.
I could write another book about everything I’ve learned over the past couple of years. But I won’t (at least not now).
A few stories have stuck with me. Before a book event on the West Coast, I had dinner with a group of mostly gay men in their 60s and 70s. One man, seated next to me, remarked how he had returned to the church later in life. The toxic homophobia of his youth had been too much to bear.
I asked him about life as a young gay man in the 1980s. He considered my question and told me how found a group of about 14 gay friends, what today we might call his “chosen family.” But by the middle of the 1990s, he had lost a dozen of those friends to AIDS. Today, he doesn’t have the kinds of deep friendships that others his age might take for granted. But he felt fortunate to be able to find community at (of all places) a Catholic church.
At another event, this time in the Midwest, I met a student who asked me to sign a copy of his book. He told me he was Catholic, and, like me, also gay. But he hadn’t told too many people that. As he began to grapple with this sometimes messy identity, he learned about others who had wrestled with similar challenges, albeit decades earlier.
A man stood up at a third event, in the Northeast, and choked up as he recalled a story from the later pages of my book. I had written about a candlelight vigil for people with AIDS, hosted by campus ministry while he was a freshman at Fordham. He had wanted so badly to attend the vigil. But he was so afraid, so deeply closeted, that he decided it would be better to skip out, lest anyone see him there and put two and two together.
He thanked me for writing about the vigil, because the shame of skipping the event had stuck with him for decades, and he finally was able to feel like he had been present.
There was no guarantee that what became Hidden Mercy would ever be published. A priest friend suggested it might be good for me to learn more about how other gay Catholics took on their church and cared for their dying friends. He thought the lessons from that time could console and encourage me as I struggled to understand my place in the church today.
I had recently been laid off and I was trying to keep busy. That’s when I started looking into a period of history I knew remarkably little about. I conducted a few interviews, spent time in archives and I wrote a proposal. My agent sent it back. He told me it wouldn’t work as it was.
A few months went by and I resubmitted the proposal. I published a few articles in various publications to show there was interest. Then we shopped the book around. Several publishers said they loved the stories—but it wasn’t for them. They didn’t see an audience for these stories.
Eventually, a friend connected me to a mutual acquaintance who had sold her book to a small publishing imprint, Broadleaf Books. I remember the October afternoon, the sun setting outside my Chicago apartment, when I got the call that my proposal was accepted. A weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt renewed. Then it hit me: I was responsible for telling the stories of heroic individuals now in their twilight years.
I hope that I have done well by those stories, both in Hidden Mercy and the America podcast series, “Plague.” I remain so grateful and humbled by the community that formed around Hidden Mercy. I am humbled by the readers who spent time and money to read my work, and especially by the many individuals who reached out to share their own experiences with me.
My own journey as a gay man living out my faith in the Catholic Church has been bolstered by the opportunity to learn this history from the people who lived it. And by connecting with others who have benefitted from hearing these stories, I have found a sense of community lacking in other spaces.
I’m not sure what comes next with this project. The talks are slowing down, though I’m always delighted when I receive an email inviting me to an event. But I hope the people who shared their stories with me know that I feel indebted to them, because they gave me the opportunity to learn from their wisdom. Their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, continue to inspire people whose names and stories I will never know.