December 1st was “World AIDS Day” and as a commentator who happens to be gay, I felt tremendous pressure to write something about HIV to mark the occasion. I decided not to! But if I had written something about HIV I would have said something about my own experiences related to the disease.
I would have talked about how I was introduced to it back in 1981 through reading in “The Advocate” about a medical phenomenon that, at the time, was known as GRID or Gay Related Immune Deficiency. It was a frightening prospect that was being studied by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and was believed to have originated with a German Flight Attendant with a penchant for having a lot of sex with a lot of men. Soon the CDC had discovered that the disease had already stricken a few villages in Africa and the race to understand GRID was on.
But there was a problem with the name of the phenomenon. In Africa the syndrome affected heterosexuals so GRID was no longer an appropriate moniker. There were investigations that blamed monkeys in the wilds of the African Continent for the spread of the dreaded condition, but they were unable to come up with a method of how the disease jumped species from Monkeys to Man. The new designation for HIV evolved into Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. Medical professionals wanted to distance the syndrome from being a “Gay” disease because they feared what they believed would happen if people thought that only gay men could get it. Sure enough, their fears materialized right before their eyes.
Unfortunately, the original name of the disease attached a stigma to the condition that remains today. The damage, not only to gay rights, but also to efforts to eradicate the disease, had already been done. Heterosexuals in Europe and the US believed that GRID was a “GAY” disease and therefore they were immunized by the mere fact that they were not Gay. And. Of course, the militant religious right wing morality thugs had a very frightening axe to swing at Gay & Lesbian people who were embroiled in a fight for equal rights.
I would have talked about the evolution of the syndrome from GRID to AIDS and eventually to HIV and how the awakening of our government took so long to accomplish. I would have mentioned that Ronald Reagan never so much as uttered the word AIDS until over a million people, worldwide, had already died from it. Up until that moment, no federal funds were allocated to research, or even treat, the disease other than the normal budget the CDC was already working with.
I would have talked about what happened here in Oregon as AIDS turned 10 years old. The Civil Rights battle came to a head with a statewide ballot measure called “Measure 9” in which a group of those religious morality thugs I mentioned tried to get the voters to approve an amendment to the state’s constitution that would lump Gay & Lesbian people with child molesters, rapists and sociopathic criminals. Their argument centered upon their insistence that AIDS was God’s wrath against those sexually deviant Homosexuals who were dedicated to recruiting your children into a tragic life of self-destruction. The ballot measure failed by a whisper of a margin in the 1992 election, but I recall that NO ONE considered it a victory. It was a street level demonstration of the worst elements of humanity and we all knew it. Even those religious morality thugs, that had considered it a life and death issue during the election, were ashamed that night!
I would have talked about 1993 when I sat in my little studio apartment in Portland Oregon feeling somewhat shell-shocked over the loss of no less than 5 personal friends who had died from AIDS so far that year, and it was only March! I would have showed you a series of poems I wrote to try and make sense of what was happening to me, and to my community, because I had to do SOMETHING with the overwhelming feeling of helplessness against this monster we still didn’t fully understand.
Of Course, I would have also talked about “Act-Up”. Act-Up was a radical group of men and women who were justifiably outraged at the lack of support and attention to the devastation the disease was causing in the lives of their friends and families and took their anger to the streets with civil disobedience actions and demonstrations. I would have talked about how Gay Pride Events all over the country were mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Gay & Lesbian people into the streets to make a stand for their personhood and their citizenship amidst a virtual ocean of resistance from mainstream America.
I likely would have ended up talking about how that research money that eventually, though far too late, grew from a trickle to a somewhat reasonable flow, made some headway in treatments for those who were infected. Today, unlike for most of my life, HIV is no longer a death sentence! There are effective treatments that are managing the disease, often for decades. But, a cure is still forthcoming. I would have said that I’m grateful for the progress, although still gun-shy from long hard winter that finally brought it to us. But I decided not to write about HIV because it always brings up such sadness in me that it didn’t have to play out like that! We could have done much better!