AIDS through My Days
John’s friend had been abandoned by his family after they found out he had AIDS. For those of you who weren’t around in the 1980s, you have to understand that prevailing belief was that if you had AIDS, it meant that you must be gay or, less often, a hemophiliac who had gotten some tainted blood. Since they knew he didn’t have hemophilia, it allowed them to cast him aside because of his homosexuality. Because the facts still weren’t widely known, he was shunned by many of his acquaintances, and found significant challenges with employment and housing, finally ending up in hospice care by one of the few forward-thinking AIDS service organizations at the time.
AIDS was the “demon menace” of the gay community back then; the only visible, socially acceptable poster-child of the anti-AIDS movement at the time was Ryan White, a boy who contracted AIDS from Factor VIII, a hemophiliac treatment made from the plasma of numerous donors. The other celebrities that succumbed to AIDS before I learned more about it—Rock Hudson and Liberace, among others—were all gay and, therefore (according to popular anti-gay wisdom of the time) “deserved” to get it for their licentious, evil ways.
What I saw, though, was a man stripped of his family’s love and support, without the ability to hold down a job or get anything other than the experimental and palliative care that medical science could provide, watching his life slip away. At 16, it was powerful enough for me to sit up and take notice, but not powerful enough for me to question whether I might be risking a similar fate.
During college and into my 20s, safer sex became more of a heterosexually acceptable topic; condom distribution was slowly starting to filter into the post-secondary educational systems. Posters about how AIDS was transmitted started being papered on the walls of student health centers and on the bulletin boards of various university buildings. And yet, very few of us that were straight acting—and certainly none of the lesbian women that I knew—bothered to practice safer sex. After all, we weren’t gay, and we weren’t fucking IV drug users (the other main route of transmission), so why bother? The pill was all us girls who were having sex with guys needed. As for guys? Well, if you’re only getting busy with the girls, then as long as they don’t get pregnant, you’re safe.
Even then, I knew that we were losing entire generations of people, mostly gay men who had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the mid ’90s, I met my first straight man to openly admit that he was HIV positive. He willingly told me that he’d gotten it from a prostitute, and his sense of shame had been tempered by his acceptance of who he was and the addictions and the poor choices that led to his unsafe behavior. (He’d never used a condom with a prostitute, and he didn’t care about any potential consequences at the time.)
I remember being aghast. This was a death sentence, wasn’t it? He was young—in his late 20s or early 30s—unmarried, with no children, and a good job. What kind of life would he have? Who would marry him? How long would he even live? After further study, I found that there were already, at that time, some long-term AIDS survivors; men (primarily) who had been HIV positive for over a dozen years, and were still living a reasonably healthy life, and who were powerful role models for a population who needed to know that there was hope.
When I was in my early 30s, I met a wonderful man who was just starting his re-emergence into a social life through a club of which I was a member. He had essentially been in mourning for over a dozen years since the death of his long-time partner and lover from AIDS. It quite literally broke his heart, and changed his life forever. It took repeated encouragement from his friends to come out and rejoin the world—and he did do it, but he never quite totally shed the sense of grief that comes with losing the love of one’s life.
Right now, I can easily count off a dozen people that I know of all genders who are HIV positive. Some of them are acquaintances, some of them are friends; a few are past play partners or lovers. I’m grateful that they’re able to control their illness with medication; too many lives have been lost to this damned virus already, and the loss to our society of their brilliance and talents and love is incalculable. But I’m also angry because people still die from AIDS, and many of us seem to have forgotten that.
This past year, a tremendously talented man of my acquaintance passed away quietly in the arms of his husband, finally succumbing to AIDS. He was a creative designer, a teacher, a man who possessed one of the most gentle, helpful souls that I’ve ever known. He was in his early 50s—not an old man—and by all rights, should have had another few dozen years of vitality and love ahead of him. And yet, almost 30 years since AIDS was identified and given the name “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” death is still the eventual, inescapable outcome for this disease.
Today, I’m proud to live in a time in which the medical understanding of HIV has grown and led to advances not only in treatment, but in the search for both a vaccine and a cure. I am proud to live in a country where our president doesn’t hesitate to actually say the word AIDS, unlike Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. I’m proud to know that so many organizations have put their political lives on the line to promote needle exchanges and condom use in both inner-city U.S.A. and Sub-Saharan Africa, even during times when it’s tantamount to waving a red flag in the face of the conservative bull.
I’m saddened, though, at the behavior of our culture, overall. Millions of teenagers don’t ever hear about how to put on a condom, much less get an understanding of what safer sex is, because of the arguments about funding comprehensive sex education in schools. The question of whether it’s okay for porn stars to have sex without condoms brings up the issue of how we all model safer sex behavior based on others in our community.
I’m almost 40 years old now. I’m damn grateful to have missed the initial flush of the epidemic. My first partnered sexual fumblings came around the same time that Rock Hudson died, and I had yet to understand the world around me. I’m grateful to have at least caught on to the need for safer sex practices before I could become infected with AIDS. But I’m still damned angry every time I see AIDS de-emphasized, described as simply “a treatable illness,” or lowered down the list of causes that donors canvas because it’s “not really a problem anymore.” I’m angry when I look around and see ribbons of every color but red. And I’m angry when I hear someone tell me that they don’t worry about getting HIV.
Please don’t tell me that a generation died for nothing.