There is something almost surreal about World AIDS Day landing on the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. But then, maybe not…
World AIDS Day is commemorated annually on December 1st. I try to stop, even if for only a few moments, to reflect.
Like most gay men of a certain age, AIDS has touched my life in a number of ways. I am more fortunate than many. I’m not HIV-positive. I’m smart enough to know that I owe much of the credit for that to dumb luck.
I ‘came out’ later than many of my peers; I was over 30. That turned out to be, at least in this regard, a blessing. At the time I was trying to live the ‘straight life’ there was not as much risk of HIV infection in the straight community as there is today; at least not in the US. I completely missed the go-go days of the 70’s in the gay community. By the time I finally came out in the mid-80’s, while we didn’t know much, the concept of ‘safer sex’ was already being discussed. I began my life in the gay community with a significant advantage over those who’d been active before the risks were known. It’s hard to think of years of repression and denial as a health strategy but, in my case it was a beneficial outcome. As I said, dumb luck.
For someone not living much in the gay community, I experienced my first loss to AIDS earlier than some. One of my best friends from high school died June 21, 1983. It’s hard to believe that was more than 30 years ago! I was a pallbearer. It was my first AIDS funeral. Sadly, it would not be my last.
What came to be known as the ‘politics of AIDS’ in the Reagan years, and the realities of my own personal life converged and finally gave me the impetus, I would never call it courage, to finally come out to myself and, gradually, to others. The mantra of the time was SILENCE = DEATH. Prior to that, silence had only equaled a kind of unhappy isolation for me. By the late 80’s the stakes seemed higher.
One of my first steps toward getting involved and, I hoped meeting more gay people, was to volunteer at a local AIDS support organization. I felt like I was making a contribution. I attended my first World AIDS Day event on December 1, 1989. It was a candlelight procession in Ann Arbor Michigan. It was cold and snowing!
And I did make friends. I met my first partner at an AIDS fund raiser. By then I’d done some dating but that was my first serious same-sex relationship. Our decision to live together prompted me to finally come out to my family. Of course making my first gay friends within the HIV/AIDS community was a bit of adverse selection. I attended my second AIDS funeral about a week after that 1989 candlelight parade. As I moved into the 1990’s there were more.
I still have loved ones living with HIV. I can be as critical of ‘big-pharma’ as anyone but the advances in treatments have had an amazing impact on the lives of a few people I care about, I only know one person who died from complication of AIDS so far this century. That’s progress I would have thought unimaginable 30 years ago.
So, looking back with my own myopic view of AIDS, all my memories are not grief and anguish. There is loss, to be sure, but there are also memories of wonderful people who touched my life who I would never have known had it not been for this tragedy. Do I wish they were still here? Of course. But I take comfort in seeing a few bright spots in what otherwise would be an unrelentingly dark part of my life.
The most recent statistics I could find tell me that there about more than 1.1 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS. More than 640,000 have died. This is about the same as the number of Americans who died in both World Wars combined. Worldwide there are more than 33 million people living with HIV/AIDS. More the 25 million have died.
A number of songs come to mind when I think of the AIDS epidemic. The most famous is probably Love Don’t Need a Reason by Michael Callen, Peter Allen and Marsha Melamet. It is a power song. The song I always find more moving, however. is on the Ron Romanovsky & Paul Phillips‘ collection; Brave Boys. The song is called Living With AIDS. The link below should play it. It often makes me
cry like a little girl a little misty-eyed. I’m OK investing a few minutes in that on December 1st.