Monday, December 1, 2014

World AIDS Day: Then and Now

Today marks a dark period in our fight for equality. It also commemorates the point when a new generation of activists emerged in the US, born of sorrow and indignation. 

The 1980s was the first time I'd witnessed firsthand such a coldhearted response to people in obvious trouble. Government and health officials refused to acknowledge a terrifying and deadly disease simply because most sufferers were gay. Within the first year over 100 men had died and they claimed the mystery disease wasn't a problem. Years later, religious conservatives clung to the same attitude. Death of thousands was the will of a vengeful deity who was purging the country of gays. There was nothing to be concerned about. If you were sick it was because you deserved to die.

I called bullshit on the concept, as did most with a conscience. Christianity speaks of helping the poor and ministering to the sick. Who is more in need of help than a guy living on public assistance because he's too ill to work? Who needs comfort more than someone lying alone in a hospital full of other sick men because all of his friends are already dead and his family doesn't care whether he survives? It was just a convenient excuse for hatred. Where that is concerned, not much has changed.

Photo by Victoria Pickering
AIDS quilt on display in Washington, DC. When shown in its entirety, it covers 16 acres and displays panels in honor of over 43,000 people - less than 20% of the lives lost. 

Watching sons come out to their parents from their hospital bed and schools expelling kids because they were HIV+ was heartbreaking. Fear was the overriding emotion even in those who weren't ignorant boneheads. No one knew what caused AIDS. No one understood how it spread. Could you get it from a kiss? From a sneeze? From a hug? There was no effective treatment and people were in a panic that went far beyond the mayhem of the recent avian flu. Even a whisper that someone was sick meant instant isolation by people they considered friends, immediate termination from their job, expulsion from school, and banning from the local grocery store. Existing organizations designed to help invalids, refused to go anywhere near people with AIDS. They were isolated to certain clinics, certain hospital wings, certain transportation companies. 

It was also an inspiring demonstration of the strength of the human spirit and a community taking care of its own. New organizations sprang up to deal specifically with those shunned by the rest of society. The sick helped the sicker, families and friends who had already lost loved ones adopted those who had no one, strangers became treasured companions. 

While the White House ignored pleas for help and pharmaceutical companies refused to pool resources to find a cure (they didn't want to have to share the patent), those in the trenches created their own social services and passed along information to help ease some of the symptoms. It's true that it had been a long time since the human race had seen a disease that spread that fast and killed that quickly, but I don't consider that a valid excuse. 

Graphic by AJC1

The name given to the virus in the early days said it immune deficiency. It established the attitude that still clings to AIDS and HIV today. It's a gay disease, a gay problem, a gay issue. AIDS showed us that inequality can be deadly, not in someone else's neighborhood with a random gay bashing but in our own community in a wave of death that turns bustling apartment complexes to empty slums.

This is why Pride celebrations matter, with the loud music and naked guys dancing on parade floats. We're not fighting for their right to be nude. We're fighting for their right to be.

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