AIDS used as a weapon against gay men
1984. Cyndi Lauper’s, “Time after Time,” becomes a top 40’s hit. Michael Jackson’s hair gets burned in a Pepsi commercial accident. Apple unveils its revolutionary Macintosh personal computer. Vanessa Williams surrenders her crown after her Penthouse magazine nude photos are discovered. Ronald Reagan still hasn’t uttered the word “AIDS” publicly and doesn’t do so until 1987 at the end of his second term.
In 8th grade — as a shy, sensitive, and insecure kid — I remember the fear of walking along the long rows of metal lockers of my fundamentalist Christian school, Los Angeles Baptist High School, trying so desperately to hide my gay-self. I recall the misery of lunchtime as I naturally preferred the company of girls, but didn’t want to be the target of the boys who found it odd. There was such torment being a young gay boy when I was being sexually harassed and bullied in middle school. And then there’s the turbulent topic of AIDS growing up.
AIDS was frequently used in those days as a weapon at school and church to perpetuate religious homophobia. I heard repeatedly that this was God’s wrath on the “homosexual lifestyle” — not only were gay and lesbian people going to hell… but we were sentenced to die a painful debilitating death as punishment from God. In the context of this anti-gay environment, my not yet formed gay activist self chose to follow the development of AIDS as a current event requirement for my social studies class.
One of the first things I noticed during that time with so many AIDS-related deaths, and, what still impresses me to this day, is how the gay community came together to care for their own. During Reagan’s miserably insufficient response, the Pat Buchannan’s and Jerry Falwell’s of the world were venomous in their attacks of queers, but gay men and lesbian women still rallied to care for their sick and dying. They admirably cared for their brothers, lovers and friends often when their own families rejected them.
AIDS increased the stigma even further against our communities and in so doing required an intense response in order to survive. Loved ones were in pain and dying. Fear abounded. Much was unknown. But fighting AIDS became our community’s involuntary battleground where we learned to demand that our basic human rights be recognized and valued. The queer community used their rage at the lack of adequate response to AIDS, to further organize.
We became caregivers, nurses, doctors, counselors, scientists, researchers and political activists:
We were determined and perseverant.
Care, Not Judgement
In the 1990’s, after embracing my gay identity, I was eager to contribute in any way that I could. I was a new counselor working on the San Francisco AIDS Foundation hotline, facilitating a support group at the UCSF AIDS Health Project, and providing care for those in a Residential Community living with AIDS.
One of my most powerful experiences during this time was caring for a client — a former gay activist — in the hospital who was unresponsive to new protease inhibitors. While he had wasting syndrome and knew he was dying, his sense of humor prevailed. One time I walked in and saw Mark Leno massaging his feet to ease his pain and provide some comfort. Being there at the end of his life was a gift.
It is imperative that we continue to do our part in caring for each other. We often have needs that go unmet by our families of origin. Our chosen families and community are all the more important in addressing these needs.
In November comes colder windier weather where leaves shed and provide nutrients to the ground for new growth. It is a season of transition from summer to winter, less daylight and often a time for internal reflection. December 1st marks World AIDS Day. While in the United States HIV is more of a manageable chronic disease, let us remember those whose lives have been affected by this. Let’s honor the memories of our heroes in our struggle for equality by continuing to value our gay-selves. Let’s love and care for our HIV positive brothers and sisters by supporting their lives and contributions to the world. Let’s protect and value each other by having fun. Judge less, love more.
This article was first published in The FIGHT Magazine, November 2012