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Emotional 80 years for gay Chicagoan
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2013-06-26

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Bill Rydwell turned 80 years old Oct. 9, 2012, but he wasn't celebrating. In fact, he hasn't celebrated a birthday in almost 30 years.

Back on July 13, 1985, Rydwell and Pedro "Franco" Prieto, partners of 17 years, went together to be tested for HIV. Both learned they were HIV-positive.

Less than three months later, on what was Rydwell's 53rd birthday, Prieto died.

Rydwell's world truly changed.

"I got in the car after [Prieto's] funeral, called my family and said I was coming to Chicago," Rydwell said in an interview at his Lakeview apartment. "I didn't tell them what was wrong, or how Franco died. I didn't want to say much."

Rydwell drove to Chicago, "and I was expecting, within one year, to be dead."

Instead, Rydwell has been instrumental in changing the lives of countless others living with HIV/AIDS.

In 1987, Chris Clason placed an ad in Gay Chicago, looking to start a support group for HIV-positive people. Rydwell was one of 17 who attended the first meeting with Clason—this was the beginning of the Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN).

Within a year, the group had more than 200 members. They had meetings on Tuesday and Friday nights, plus picnics around Memorial Day, Labor Day and Pride.

"What Chris did was, he arranged to have doctors, lawyers, social workers and others come and talk to us. He had professional people talk, all donating their time," Rydwell said. "We determined what we needed, how we were going to be run, etc."

Rydwell was one of four who welcomed all newcomers to the group, and each of those newcomers was required to first attend an hour-long meeting. "We'd give them a presentation of who we were, tell them that we have no [concrete] answers," Rydwell said.

Of the 17 who started the support group, only four or five are still living, Rydwell said.

"It was an absolutely horrendous period," Rydwell said of the 1980s when almost everyone in the LGBT community was impacted, somehow, by HIV/AIDS. Deaths then were more common than recovery once diagnosed, if ever diagnosed.

Rydwell said that there was no outside signage mentioning the TPAN support meetings—because some members requested there not be a sign since they didn't want to be seen going in somewhere associated with HIV/AIDS.

"[Through] every person who has died [from HIV/AIDS], we've lost something. We had doctors, lawyers, social workers, poets, painters, actors [and other professionals] all die from AIDS. What did we lose? So, so many," Rydwell said.

Thus, before he goes to bed, Rydwell prays. "I find it necessary in my way of praying, to name those who I can remember [who died from AIDS] every night.

"They never should be forgotten."

Rydwell, born in Chicago and a 1950 graduate of Carl Schurz High School. He then went on to Northern Illinois University.

Rydwell retired in 1988, and was forced to start using a walker to get around in 2012. Still, he's mobile, active, watches a lot of TV and his mind is sharp. He still enjoys traveling, and does so regularly.

Rydwell also has battled cancer twice.

"I believe very much in a God. I really believe there has to be someone there because I shouldn't be here, and yet everything has worked out so perfectly for me," he said. "I think it's sad that we still haven't learned to respect and work with another, to the best of everyone's benefit.

"The only thing I think I did [through TPAN] was, show people that, if you take care of yourself and follow the rules, you can still be here and have a life."

Rydwell still regularly participates in TPAN's twice-a-week support group for older adults, Daytimers, and held every Monday and Thursday morning. The group originally was formed for people who couldn't make it to evening meeting because they didn't have the energy at night due to their sickness, he said. "It was where we went to talk, be together," Rydwell said. "As things improved [medically for those infected], we no longer needed that [time for the group], but we still use it now to stay in contact."

They joke and laugh today, cry about years past.

"We were the pariah [years ago], but one of the great things to come out of TPA was that I realized I wasn't the pariah any more than any other sick person," Rydwell said. "Slowly, over time, people began to see us and respect us."

So what is gay Chicago like, circa 2013, for someone who has seen the city longer than many Sidetrack regulars on a Saturday night have even been alive.

Comfort—in his community, he said.

Rydwell sees younger gays walking along Halsted Street holding hands. He shakes his head and admits it kills him because he wanted to do that years ago, but never could.

"What I see [nowadays] is what I wish would have happened for me," he said. "In my day, I felt badly to even tell my family, 'Hey, Franco and I are celebrating our 15th anniversary. We're having a party; do you want to come over?'"

And when asked about LGBT now getting married, Rydwell again shakes his head, astonished.

"I never really told my dad how much I loved him … because he was a man," Rydwell said. "That's the era I grew up in."


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