By AUSTIN CONSIDINE
For Mr. Mendelsohn, 54, the moment represented an unequivocal victory: an apex to decades of struggle for equal recognition under state law. Still, the moment was tinged with a sense of absence, as it was for many gay men his age. Amid the jubilation, he couldn’t help but think of Phil Kanner, his partner of 15 years, who died of complications from AIDS in 1995.
“I was thinking, ‘I wish Phil were here with me,’ ” Mr. Mendelsohn said in an interview in the fall, adding later, “If my partner were alive, I believe we would have married.”
For many middle-aged gay men in New York City, the passage of the same-sex marriage law was in part a fresh reminder of the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, when men like Mr. Mendelsohn, the director of a nonprofit media group, lost innumerable friends and loved ones to a disease that was often as stigmatizing as it was deadly.
At the height of the epidemic, the disease took tens of thousands of lives in the United States each year; it reached its deadly peak in 1995, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the number of deaths of those with AIDS reaching more than 50,000 that year.
Those who survived haven’t stopped living, forming new relationships and organizing for equality in the decades since. But the memory of what was lost lingers — a shadow cast by marriage equality’s glow.
“New losses can trigger old feelings of grief, but so can successes, so something like having gay marriage can trigger feelings of loss,” said James Masten, a Manhattan psychotherapist and author who has worked with patients with H.I.V. and AIDS for the last 20 years.
“Even though it’s a positive experience, it can still remind us of all the people who aren’t here, who haven’t had the opportunity to see this — all the activists who never lived to this point,” he added.
Jeffrey Sharlach, 58, founder of a Manhattan-based communications firm and an adjunct associate professor of management communication at New York University, said he lost nearly every one of his gay friends in New York during the 1980s and ’90s, including his partner of more than 12 years, Ken Williams, who died in 1994 at age 33. Mr. Sharlach is publishing a novel in May about that period in his life called “Running in Bed,” which he described as about a quarter autobiographical.
For Mr. Sharlach, New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic became an empty shell, its streets a constant reminder of loved ones who were disappearing. “Every single block would be like, ‘Oh, I remember this guy used to live here.’ ”
“It was like a city of ghosts,” he added.
With the passing of time, many of those who survived the 1980s and ’90s have gone on to form meaningful long-term relationships. Some, like Mr. Mendelsohn, took advantage of the same-sex marriage law fairly quickly. In September, he married Wallie Pagunsan, exactly two years after the day they met.
Others, like Mr. Sharlach, believe that the moment for marrying may have passed. Though he, too, has a long-term partner, his second since Mr. Williams died, he has little interest in marrying.
“I think the relationships that you have when you’re older are different than the relationships you have when you’re in your 20s,” he said. “In your 20s you have this idea that you’re going to grow together, build a life together and kind of grow up together.”
His current relationship, Mr. Sharlach added, is “much more mature.”
The generational marriage gap felt by Mr. Sharlach, and echoed by others, isn’t only about age. It’s also a function of history and denied opportunity. While some middle-aged gay men and lesbians leaped at the chance to marry after having been denied the right, others say the concept feels too foreign today because it was such a remote possibility for so long.
“The idea of gay marriage — I mean nobody ever talked about it, it was nowhere on anyone’s radar screen,” Mr. Sharlach said. During the 1980s and ’90s, he said, “we were just worried about people not being fired from their jobs, people not getting kicked out of their apartments. That was the big thing. Really, basic rights were much more important.”
David Norris lost his partner of 10 years, Jeffery Reddick, in 1992, also from AIDS complications. Like Mr. Sharlach, he focused for years on other issues that, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, seemed more urgent.
But it would feel wrong to have a marriage recognized in one home state, but not another, he said. Mr. Norris, a vice president for an insurance group, has long been active in gay equality groups like the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Lambda Legal and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. He hopes to engage more fully in his advocacy role once he retires.
Mr. Norris is thrilled about the New York marriage law, he said, especially for younger people who, largely because of his generation’s efforts, will never know the same kinds of discrimination. But he is reluctant to marry because he believes the law doesn’t go far enough. “We probably will get married, but I still go back and forth on it,” he said regarding his current partner. “I want the whole enchilada.”
If the federal Defense of Marriage Act were repealed, he would feel more certain, Mr. Norris added. “Then we’d be booking the banquet hall. It would be a real celebration.”
The men interviewed for this article may form an imbalanced picture of their generation because each has gone on to form long-term, meaningful romantic relationships — despite the loss of partners, and regardless of feelings about marrying. But, as therapists attest, there are silent others who remain haunted by the tragedies of the AIDS scourge, and unhealed by the passing years.
“Of course, there’s a sense of positivity around gay marriage, but many gay men of my generation, I would describe us, actually, as a lost generation,” said Darrell Greene, a Manhattan psychologist who spent the worst years of the epidemic working for AIDS-related health organizations, first as part of the AIDS Task Force of Greater Cleveland, then at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the AIDS unit at Goldwater Memorial Hospital, in New York. It was, he said, “like living through a war.”
“There are many people who are survivors and who have tremendous resilience, of course,” Dr. Greene said. “But in terms of my population, there are many people who were profoundly traumatized by the epidemic. And they are still processing what happened to them.”
Mr. Mendelsohn, who welcomed the news of the gay marriage act outside the Stonewall, has learned above all to place his loss within a larger context — in a way that, though tragically ironic, gives added positive meaning to the otherwise devastating experience.
“I believe that there wouldn’t be any gay marriage today if it weren’t for AIDS,” Mr. Mendelsohn said. “There was so much intolerance and misunderstanding about who was gay and who wasn’t until everyone found out that people were gay because they were dying. And it was their friends, their family, their relatives.”
Support groups for gay men grieving the deaths of their partners helped Mr. Mendelsohn, like many of the men interviewed, cope with his loss, especially in the years just after his partner died. As time passed, his grieving evolved, his nightmares stopped.
“Somewhere, the memories were less and less about the hard times and the illness, and more and more about the happy times,” he said. “It was less traumatic. I came to see him more as my angel looking over me and helping me.”