Between Certain Death and a Possible Future:
Queer Writing on Growing up
with the AIDS Crisis

Every queer person lives with the trauma of AIDS, and this plays out intergenerationally. Usually we hear about two generations—the first, coming of age in the era of gay liberation, and then watching entire circles of friends die of a mysterious illness as the government did nothing to intervene. And now we hear about a current generation growing up in an era offering effective treatment and prevention, and unable to comprehend the magnitude of the loss. We are told that these two generations cannot possibly understand one another, and thus remain alienated from both the past and the future. But there is another generation between these two—one growing up in the midst of the epidemic, haunted by the specter of certain death. A generation growing up with AIDS suffusing desire, internalizing the trauma as part of becoming queer. And these are the personal stories I’d like to collect in this book—accounts that overlap with the more commonly portrayed generations, and offer a bridge between.

By telling this specific generational story in all its complications, how do we explore the trauma the AIDS crisis continues to enact, and imagine a way out? How do race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, religion, ethnicity, indigeneity, rural/urban experience, regional/national origin, Global South/Global North perspective, HIV status, and access to treatment and prevention (over time and in shifting contexts) shape personal experience? What is excluded from the glorified myth of progress that now reigns?

How does the impact of growing up with the AIDS crisis continue to affect those left out of the white picket fence version of respectability promoted by dominant “LGBTQ” institutions? How does this apply to sex work, migration, public sex, cruising spaces and apps, abuse and survival, incarceration, reproductive health, homelessness, activism, drug use and addiction, subcultural striving, gay bar culture, HIV criminalization, and hierarchies within gay/queer/trans cultures?

Any generational frame offers only a partial truth, and I’m especially interested in the gaps between accepted narratives and lived experience. As a generation coming of age both with and without the internet, how has technology changed our lives, for better and worse? How does stigma against HIV-positive people continue today, and does the rhetoric around “undetectability” further exclusion rather than ending it? Who is dying of AIDS now, in spite of “AIDS Is Over” rhetoric? Has the energy around PrEP shifted the focus of public health campaigns away from demanding a cure for HIV? How could a meaningful intergenerational conversation about HIV/AIDS take place? What would communal care actually look like?

I’m interested in your most intimate stories, and your most personal fears—what you’re afraid to say is what I want to hear.

About the Editor:

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore ( is the author of three novels and a memoir, and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies. Her memoir, The End of San Francisco, won a Lambda Literary Award, and her widely hailed anthologies include Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?, That’s Revolting!, and Nobody Passes. Her latest novel, Sketchtasy (one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018), is about this generation between certain death and a possible future.


Please submit nonfiction personal essays of up to 5000 words, as Word attachments (no PDFs, please), to Feel free to contact me with any queries. The deadline for submissions is March 1, 2020.


All That Sheltering Emptiness is a meditation on elevators, hotel lobbies, hundred dollar bills, the bathroom, a cab, chandeliers, cocktails, the receptionist, arousal, and other routines in the life of a New York City callboy. Gorgeously hand-processed in full 16mm glory, this film is a collaboration between Joey Carducci and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. All That Sheltering Emptiness explodes the typical narratives of desire, escape and intimacy to evoke something more honest.

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Lostmissing was/is a public art project about the friend who will always be there, no matter what, and what happens when you lose that relationship. After losing my closest friendship of 16 years, I wanted to express myself in public space in a way that felt personal and more meaningful than a private expression because I wanted to connect to other people and other lostmissing stories. This project was/is a public expression of grief in order to feel hopeful again—it’s about that random poster you see and you don’t know what it means exactly but your eyes get bright all the sudden.

Starting in 2009, I distributed these posters as widely as possible so people could put them up in their own towns and kitchens and living rooms and bathrooms and galleries and meeting spaces and community centers and bars and workplaces and on the street and on abandoned buildings in bus shelters and on public transportation at shows of all kinds and in sex venues and restaurants and on bulletin boards and in store windows and in letters and in taxis and on the internet and near dramatic views and tourist attractions and in your own art and fluttering on the street in the wind.

Click an image to view full size:

So far, there have been posters sightings in cities as wide-ranging as Little Rock, AR; Denver, CO; New York, NY; St. Louis, MO; Kolkata, India; Rockville, MD; Seattle, WA; Berlin, Germany; Hartford, CT; Portland, OR; Chicago, IL; Montréal, Canada; Asheville, NC; Los Angeles, CA; Albuquerque, NM; Brisbane, CA; Houston, TX; Beacon, NY; Istanbul, Turkey; Washington, DC; Corvallis, OR; Baltimore, MD; Santa Fe, NM; Eugene, OR; Leeds, England; and San Francisco, CA. I've done gallery installations in Santa Fe and New York, and posters have also appeared in the Chicago art festival SOMETHING NEW, Berkeley literary zine TRY, San Francisco Art and Politics, UK zine Reassess Your Weapons, and Semiotext(e) journal Animal Shelter. Feel free to print any of the posters if you’d like, and send me photos of posters in public if you are inspired. Together maybe we won’t feel so lostmissing.