Listening to Train “Hey Soul Sister” makes me think of the 80’s when we would go out all night dancing at the Renegade a gay bar in Rehoboth, Delaware where we would dance until 3:00 am. We loved going there where the air was thick and heavy with smoke and sweat, the beat of the music so loud it encompassed your soul. We were all beautiful and dressed to the nines; the hunt was on but if there was nothing worth striking for at least we could dance. We all believed we were fabulously smooth and graceful out there under the disco ball. It truly was a fascinating place, where the sights ranged from the most beautiful woman who weren’t but they were tall, broad shouldered and in dresses and heals or young woman in tuxedos and suits, looking like handsome young men. It was there where we could be as unique as we wanted to be and no one glared or was aghast. Everyone was popular in the Renegade and you didn’t give a shit if you weren’t because you were too inebriated or just sucked into the music so that you didn’t have to care.
If you have never been to a smoking hot dance bar like a good old gay bar you probably have never seen the likes of what the world had to offer as far as bravado and insecurity all at the same. It was as close to the feel of a city as we could get in this State rambling with small towns and beaches. I would never find anything there worth holding onto except great memories of good people and the love of dance. Strangers could surround you and after dancing all night with them, you walked out at near daylight best friends. Those people we held so near and dear to us were our friends and community that we had struggled to make through pure hedonism. That sense of community glued us together for years; it kept us coming back every Friday night at about 9:00 pm and would end seemingly abruptly on Sunday with a Tea Dance, which was just another way to say Happy Hour only it began at 2:00 p.m.
The 80’s came in with a bang, big glasses, big hair, with music and sleek tanned bodies and ended in the 90s with hundred of our friends dying from the AIDS crisis. I lost so many people I knew that I can’t even count them all. I remember some very special friends who I still like to think of as dancing with me, with sweat rolling down our faces to “It’s Raining Men”. They sit with me on nights like tonight when I am just missing something and missing them seems better than sitting here not knowing what it is exactly that I am missing. They were: Juan 1987, Chris 1989, Billy 1992, Phillip “Sport” 1994, Steve 1999. Then there was a feeling of impending doom that lingered within us, it was heavy like a wet wool coat over your shoulders and just as comforting. It was a time in our lives that we all knew that every year we could discover that someone we loved had AIDS. This disease of the body and of the heart had its tendrils wrapped around each of us, and the sting burned like the flaming sting of a jelly fish.
We became angry from our grief. We felt we needed to change the way government worked for us so in 1993 WE Marched on Washington for legislation to help fund research that two administrations had kept from positively funding efforts to stop or find a cure for AIDS and for our Equality. In 1994 we went to Washington again for the largest Memorial the World would ever see. All that was left of the millions of people who had died up to that point from this horrific disease was the biggest Quilt from the Names Project that we would see for the very last time all in one place because it had gotten too large to display in one place. It laid from one end of the Mall to the other as wide and as long. There we would hear every individual’s name spoken as a bell rang over a loud speaker all day from early morning to late at night. We all stood in a collective state of mourning, stunned at the enormity of it all; those of us who had passed from ignorance, inaction and fear in symbolic squares laying at our feet. It was the gay disease, “Who cares if they die” and it’s “God’s punishment” people would say, now it is everyone’s disease, irony.
The Dance still went on but somehow it wasn’t as joyful at the Renegade after that, as I watched ghosts pass me by in every inch of that place. In fact one night after Chris died I saw him walk by and he stood at the bar, smiling; when I walked up to see him because I knew it had to be him, he was gone. All that lingered was a gin and tonic sitting there that no one knew who’s it was or where it came from. The nights of dancing for the pure joy of it all seemed to fade as we all aged and realized how foolish it was to continue to have so much fun in light of the seriousness of inaction. I became more an activist and would speak out and fight and teach about Diversity along side of my friends and we would collectively help with the care of our dying loved ones. I often thought silently while sitting next to Sport as he lay in his hospital bed, talking to the ceiling in Russian; was the awful feeling that this was not supposed to happen until we got old and gray and not while we were all so young. We however were in unusual times and this Pandemic would sweep the World and it wasn’t just about a small group of people not being taken seriously any more it was all of us; EVERYONE.
*And The Band Played On, ~Randy Shilts , Published 1987 Good Read.
Amy L. Kratz