PANELS...Although fictional, Phil Michal Thomas' new book draws heavily on the reality of life in gay Nashville. by Joyce Arnold Ph.D.
Many community members will recognize the name of Phil Michal Thomas. In biographic information he provided Freedom Press, for which he is a contributing writer. Thomas describes himself as "One of the Dinosaurs' from the early years of the human rights movement in Nashville as well as an AIDS activist. That experience is the basis for Thomas' PANELS, a work of fiction that captures the years when HIV/ AIDS became an undeniable epidemic that took the lives of so many gay men, among others. The story of a "circle of friends" is set in the period of the late 1980's to 2003. The AIDS Quilt, comprised of panels which represent the lives of many who have been lost to AIDS, is the basis for the title of the book.
While fiction, Thomas draws heavily on the reality of life in gay Nashville during those years. "The book is...based on the lives of actual people . Their names and more specific details about their lives were altered since many still have family living and did not know fully of their situation. There was one particular mother who, after reading the novel, actually told me that it gave her closure. She now realized that her son didn't hate her but wanted to spare her the pain of watching his last few moments on this earth."
When asked how and why he developed the combination of fact and fiction which structures the novel, Thomas said " This part was actually easy. I merely took the facts presented and embellished on telling the individual stories ." His further response provides insight into his thinking, as well as the kind of preview of what the reader can expect: "As if by some destiny, I began to counsel individuals living with some form of a terminal illness. I witnessed first hand...individuals being abandoned by their family and friends because of the gay 'cancer' as it once was referred to."
The professional work which Thomas did during those years gives him first hand knowledge of the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS, experience which is evident in the novel. " For several years , I facilitated support groups with people living with AIDS for AID-Atlanta, and later here in Nashville. While in Atlanta, I became a loud advocate for those living with AIDS. Silence equaled Death, remember?" The novel itself , he says "began to take shape at the close of one of these sessions. The need became apparent in 1987 while on a bus trip back from Washington, D.C....after the March on Washington. Two of the group participants on the trip stated very eloquently how they wished they could tell people their own stories and hopefully prevent others from having to live in agony...Even then, people were aware of the dreadful virus but somehow obviously felt immunity to the threat of AIDS." Thomas reflects on the reality of what some referred to, during that period, as the "funeral, or two, of the week. "Attendance at memorials was as common as the sun rising. However, the infections continued to rise. In an unselfish loving act, these friends wanted their stories told to keep the living living."
PANELS specifically focuses on the lives of gay African-American men. A subject matter rarely spoken publicly. A small group of friends from various ethnic groups are forced to deal with the disease as they discover, one by one, that they have contracted the virus. The physical, emotional and relational struggles that result are central to the story Thomas tells. The story , in fact, continues, and so PANELS has an immediate, as well as historical, relevance. He notes that , currently, "African- American men die from AIDS at a higher rate than most other races. Even with the knowledge, the media continues to capture the world of AIDS as being predominately for the young, preppie, pretty white gays." He continues, " Perhaps it was either ignorance or fatal denial, but a majority of the African-American gays did not readily relate to the label as being gay and somehow felt that the warnings relating to AIDS did not include them. Absent from many of the countless movies and prior books with gay characters are those of color. I have had the fortunate chance of knowing numerous black gay men who have fought the battle with AIDS. I wanted to tell their stories as well."
Middle Tennessee residents will recognize places, times, and people in Thomas' novel. Indirectly, readers will get to know something about the man who writes about a very painful period in LGBT history, but who also knows the support and hope provided, then and now, by friends, caregivers, and sometimes, by family. "I'm someone that is extremely nostalgic for the past. When I first came out into the world of gaydom, I had the pleasure of meeting people who were different from me and yet so similar to me. People who took the time to teach me how to survive. People who taught me that I was indeed okay although the world at large told me I was a freak, an abomination. I remember hearing the late perfomer Della Reeves telling me that she needed to watch over me because I was so green. I cried when I learned that she had lost her life after being stabbed to death by an acquaintance . I remeber another performer Terri Livingston performing at an AIDS benefit at the Cabaret Reunion while she herself was seriously ill...I close my eyes and I can still see my old friends. I can hear their laughter. When I open my eyes, I see their absences...As I know of the true identities of the characters within the pages of PANEL, their lives will always be imprinted in my heart and mind." Thomas concluded, "If there are any messages I could convey to the readers, the significance would be to never forget the friends of your life and to always be mindful of their love for you."