‘Facing Stigma’ with John Connors

“I was living in Troy, New York when I graduated in summer of June 1968. After high school, you were eligible for the draft unless you were at an accredited college and you could get a student deferment or if you had a letter from a doctor explaining why you weren’t eligible. I wanted to study at the Arts Students League, but the trouble with the Art Students League was that it’s not an accredited college. I came down to New York and I had this plan to get a job at the Museum of Modern Art while I was going to school. I did all the paperwork and filled out my social security information and on my way out of the building, she called me back in for one last question. She asked me what my draft status currently was and I told her I was 1A. She let me know they unfortunately couldn’t hire me because anybody with a 1A status would be gone in a month. Sure enough, a month later I got my letter stating I would be drafted and I needed to report for my physical. I passed my physical and they said, “It’s only gonna be a matter of weeks before you get your letter to report for duty”. Rather than waiting to get drafted, I decided to enlist as a non-combatant medic for four years. After going through training, I ended up getting stationed back in New York about six weeks after Stonewall happened in ’69. I was stationed at St. Albans Naval Hospital and it was filled to capacity with wounded from the war. They would rotate us around to every part of the hospital from the malaria ward, to the emergency room, cardiac unit, burn unit, etc. They wanted us to learn how to do all the different procedures and get a general idea of what was going on. On my off days I would explore the city and it wasn’t long after that I got introduced to gay life in New York.

The normal allotted time to be stationed at St. Albans Naval Hospital was six months, but I was there closer to ten months because I got chosen to be a cardiac technician. Once you’re in a specialized unit, they keep you for longer in the hospital so I just missed out on the war. I thought I was going to be sent to a unit in Vietnam, but they ended up being one of Nixon’s first pull outs. There were hundreds of thousands of people going to Vietnam so I was awfully lucky to not end up being sent over. After finishing up my enlistment, I had a little recovery period from the military for a couple years. I didn’t fit back into society the way I thought I would and there was a big anti-war movement. If you had been in the military it wasn’t like it is now with all the “thank you for your service” stuff. You didn’t hear any of that and it was really a very rough time for veterans. I managed to sort of adjust, however, because I had the gay community and the tribe of the artist world. After Stonewall there was sort of a golden period, but that all ended in 1980 with AIDS. It was about 1980 when we started seeing the first signs, but people were probably positive for years before they showed symptoms. I’d go to a bar and see somebody who just the month before looked like the picture of health, and he’d be going by with a cane with all kinds of lesions on his face. The whole thing was just horrifying. I lost my lover and my two best friends who were both artists during that time. I knew 26 people in total who passed during that time and more than half of them died in my arms. I had already worked through my own stuff about being a veteran and what I saw with the wounded at the hospital, but going through the AIDS epidemic was enough to push a lot of people over the edge.

In some ways being a veteran helped me get through the AIDS epidemic because you’re forced to tap into a resiliency and learn to deal with tragedy. However, just because you survive traumatic events, it doesn’t mean you’re always prepared for what comes afterward. I initially dealt with my mental health issues in the wrong way. I drank a lot and took a lot of illicit substances and really put myself on quite a journey. Through it all I was still able to create artwork and take care of other people, but I definitely had a couple of bad years. I started going to a doctor at the VA and I had some long talks, and she told me that I needed to stop drinking. Once I finally stopped drinking, I was forced to really face myself in a number of ways, but I came out on the other side and turned my life around in a positive way. I’m in a very positive place right now. I just had a show at SAGE and I’m on a really clear course right now with my art. I also get excited about the recognition I get here and there. I got an email from a critic at the The New York Times who really liked the work I did at the Leslie Lohman Museum. I’m not making much money from the art but I feel like I’m producing some of the best art of my whole life. I also still work as a caregiver for Larry Kramer, who wrote “The Normal Heart”. That’s been very interesting too because he’s 84, but he’s still politically active. He gave a speech recently during Pride and detailed what we’ve been through and how we should organize more. I’m trying to take care of myself a lot more now that I’m 71 and feeling like I have so much to live for. I just had a physical about a week ago and I’m in great shape. It looks like I’m gonna have another 20 years here. I’m enjoying life, what more can I say.”

Healing the hidden wounds of war