June 2011 marks the 30th year of HIV/AIDS in our societal consciousness. It wasn’t called either HIV or AIDS back then. In the first few years it went through a number of names: Gay Cancer, Gay Plague and Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) – to name a few of the more respectable ones.
We’ve come a long way in the past 30 years. We discovered that the cause of the horrible disease that was killing so many of our friends and loved ones was a virus. We learned that it was not exclusive to any one sexual orientation, and aptly it has been named the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. That medical term, along with a lot of hard work by many activists, helped de-stigmatize HIV. If a relatively affluent little white boy named Ryan White and a prolifically heterosexual African American icon basketball superstar could contract it, then heaven help us, it could happen to any of us.
There’s a double-edged sword with that statement that I can’t deny. On one edge of the sword is the fact that bringing HIV into the “mainstream” and having it recognized as the Disease-of-the-Month for … oh … about 250 or so months – paved the way and made it possible for the creation of many new drugs that have allowed those with HIV to actually live with the virus, and quite well, for the vast majority of those on the medications. For that I’m truly elated, grateful and humbled.
But on the other side of the sword is the undeniable knowledge that it took an “innocent” pre-teen boy from a respectable family and a revered womanizing celebrity who admittedly slept with an estimated 1,000 women to bring HIV/AIDS into the foreground and to get the government, scientists and the pharmaceutical companies to develop those drugs. Not to mention, our esteemed president spoke the words out loud. When it was still considered a “gay disease,” only those living with it or losing loved ones to it cared enough to do something about it.
When thinking about what I wanted to write regarding the 30th “anniversary” of HIV/AIDS, I went through a lot of ideas – and a lot of emotions. Certainly, this entire issue of Out Front Colorado could be filled with just the evolution of HIV from 1981 to present. We could write volumes on statistics and fill them with graphs and charts.
Ultimately, though, I decided to go another route.
We’ve come a long way since 1981. There is much to celebrate. Yet on the other hand, it seems to me that we may be moving backwards. I lived in San Francisco from 1983 – 1990, and I remember vividly the way people living with HIV were stigmatized and marginalized, even in “Gay Mecca.” Outside the pearly gates surrounded by the Yellow Brick Road, I knew that it was much worse. Not only were those living with HIV ostracized, but gay men in general were also.
Thirty years later, we’re back in that space where people are afraid to talk about HIV again. Talking about it openly acknowledges and validates it – and that is scary for many people.
Some men seem to think that by simply talking about it, they might “catch” the virus, or become fearful that others may think they have it.
Some men say they are negative, but don’t really know for sure. They don’t want to be tested, because knowing for sure carries a lot of responsibility, and might mean they cannot, at least honestly, continue to say that they are negative.
Some men don’t disclose their status, often because they don’t feel safe, welcomed or appreciated when they are honest about it with other gay men who are either negative – or at least say they are.
And some positive men only have sex with – and even engage and interact exclusively with – other “poz” men because they’d prefer not to have to deal with the stigma all over again.
It’s as if we are back in 1983 all over again. Fear, stigma and intentional ignorance are the norms. Only this time it’s all coming from within our own gay male community, not from the outside. We refer to ourselves and one another as “clean,” “bug-free,” or “ddf.” We isolate and alienate ourselves.
Over the past 30 years I’ve lost more than 100 friends, and three life partners to HIV/AIDS. I hate to think that everything they all represented and fought so hard for is in vain. Please don’t let it be.