Uncle Charly, Queer Joy Personified – remembering filmmaker Charles Lum (1958 – 2021)

Charles Lum (1958 – 2021) was a New York based artist and filmmaker who died of AIDS-related lymphoma on November 30th, 2021. As an HIV activist and long-term survivor, much of his work deals confrontationally with gay sexuality ethics and how the changing realities of HIV affect culture and personal experience. His shorts include Sex Manic, Auto-pilot, and Overdue Conversation, and his features—co-directed with Todd Verow—include Sex and the Silver Gays and Age of Consent.

A graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, before focusing on his own work, Lum had been a location manager and assistant director, with credits on movies such as Wall Street, CHUD, Angel Heart, Sid & Nancy, Mississippi Burning, and Fatal Attraction.

A selection of Lum’s work will screen later this month at the 17th Pornfilmfestival Berlin in a special program entitled Charles Lum: This is Where I Get Off, curated by Verow (Friday, October 28th at 9:15pm at Moviemento). An inaugural annual award in Lum’s name for Best Experimental Short Film at the Pornfilmfestival will be presented.

Here, Charles’ nibling Jo Lum shares their personal memories of their uncle with The Queer Review:

Charly was my uncle, but he was so much more. In queer community we do family differently. Our friends are not just friends—but kindreds. Fellow travelers. We depend on each other. We feed each other literally and figuratively. We care for each other when we are sick or tired. We share our resources readily. We claim each other as family. We love each other because we belong to each other. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how lucky I am—because my family of origin intersected with my chosen queer family at one blessed point: Charly. Right in my family of origin was a magical bouncing queer light-being ready to accept me with ease and celebration and model for me what boundless queer joy looks like. I know so many queer people who are totally ostracized from their families, who have no one who understands their culture, and who have to forge their own way in the world alone. I didn’t have that, because I’ve always had Charly. 

What a lottery ticket for me to grow up with a queer role model like Charly. Not the kind of wise elder who gives sage advice or gentle guidance, but the kind of elder who cannot help but pour out wild stories of queer history and his jubilant place in it. The kind of elder who cannot contain his gleeful, mischievous, body-and-sex-positive self. The kind of elder who showed me—just by existing—that I too can exist, and I can do it with sparkle and fire. 

When I went to college in New York, Charly was there, being a queer elder and uncle not only to me but to many of my friends, most of all my dear friend and my queer family Nathaniel who proudly tells anyone who will listen that Charly claimed him as his niece. In many ways, I’ve always felt that I was special because I had this special uncle I could share with the people in my life. Who would love them the way I loved them and welcome them wholeheartedly to the family. 

Like many, I do not have a father-person in my life. Charly is the closest thing to a dad-type I’ll ever have. He came to see me star in my high school play when I was 16. He came to both of my college graduations. He took me on adventures that he planned, and joined me on ones that I planned. He met and loved my friends and invited me along to meet and love his friends. He sent me Christmas and birthday gifts every year for my entire life. He supported the non-profit organization I started. He told me how proud he was of me and that he thought I should run for political office, like president. He welcomed me to his homes in New York and Maine with a warmth that made clear I wasn’t just invited, I was wanted. He modeled liberated fluid and non-violent masculinity for me. He was an adult in my life that showed me how to live a life that was both responsible and fun. 

As a survivor, and ultimately a casualty of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Charly spent the last half of his life preparing to die. As a younger queer person I wasn’t present—as Charly and many of his contemporaries were—to witness the loss of a generation of queer brilliance. To rage at governmental and systemic neglect and dismissal, and to fight for a cure. To constantly fear if your name, or your best friend’s name, your partner’s name, will be next on the quilt. I wasn’t there.

I feel in me since his death the fury and isolation that those present at the invisibilized mass extinction event that was and is the HIV/AIDS pandemic have felt. Charly suffered a lot in his diagnosis and treatment—he just did so quietly, privately, and without complaint. His adulthood was defined by being positive. AIDS was pursuing him, and he knew it was going to be the end of him. He held this suffering in for us and for himself—part shame and part fear of rejection. In witnessing his death, I finally understand a fraction of the isolation and fear Charly must have felt—that his generation felt—to live in the dark shadow of the AIDS pandemic and to be chased, as Charly ultimately was, into an early grave. 

Despite this strife he was so jubilant. His coping mechanism was to embody that which was pleasurable to him.  His queer joy—Jeopardy, Liz Taylor clippings, swimming off the boat, trips around the world to queer film festivals, sex, weed—was all medicinal.  He was an embodiment of the platitude “Dance like there’s no tomorrow.” Who can do that, be that relentlessly attentive to delight? Charly did. He did that every day. His life was defined by his inevitable death, and he knew it. He always knew it. So he chose joy over and over and over.  

Witnessing his strength through unbeatable challenge makes the lessons I learned from Charly all the more salient. He taught me what a bold life centered around art and pleasure looks like. He lived his life brightly. In relentless pursuit of art, fun, joy, laughter, beauty, and adventure. He lived his life precisely—without a moment to waste—knowing exactly what spoon he wanted to eat ice cream with and what seat to sit in at the movies. Charly knew it is always the quality not the quantity of life that matters. So he spent his days traveling the world, making people laugh, making vulnerable art that both told his story and recorded queer history, and sprinkling his wild generosity on those he loved. 

Because Charly didn’t just pursue joy and pleasure for himself alone—but for all of us. He gifted like a spritely gay Santa Claus truckloads of delight, adventure, fun, and laughter, to all who were lucky enough to know him and each of us reaped the benefits. Charly made fun. He was an enigma, a supernova, a once in a lifetime kind of love. 

Recently, I learned this quote from queer icon and sex-positive trailblazer Mae West: “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” This reminds me of Charly. Living in furious pursuit of joy to the last minute. I picture him on one of his last days sitting in his hospital room, quietly soaking in the magnificent sunset just like the countless days before on his boat in the cove with a doughnut and the newspaper. This kind of fastidious presence is something I will aspire to every day for the rest of my life, and I learned it from my beloved uncle Charly. 

Charles Lum: This is Where I Get Off plays the 17th Pornfilmfestival Berlin on Friday, October 28th at 9:15pm at Moviemento. Read more tributes to Charly on the Visual AIDS website.

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