World AIDS Day: Remember When It Used To Be Important?

I do.

I remember December 1st as a day when people gathered in terror and grief with candles and tears listening to words that couldn’t begin to touch the pain and anger and sadness.

I remember when it was a time for all kinds of people to gather together, people that probably wouldn’t be in the same room for any other reason. At World AIDS Day services in the early Nineties, I remember seeing queer activists, quietly closeted gay men and women, Episcopal and Catholic priests, Native American leaders, Protestant ministers, atheists, nuns and agnostics. I saw elected officials, Republicans and Democrats, wheelchair-bound elderly, parents, children, nurses, doctors, cowboys, lawyers, accountants, little old ladies and, once, a rodeo clown. All coming together, all looking for comfort and hope and compassion among others who could maybe understand.

We don’t really do that now. And maybe it’s okay that we don’t.
Maybe it’s good that the terror I remember so vividly on the faces of close friends and complete strangers is no longer there. Maybe it’s good that people aren’t dying so fast and so painfully, isolated and afraid. Maybe it’s good that we’re not so traumatized by fear and grief and anger.

Maybe.

Is terror a good thing? Is a painful death beneficial? Is emotional trauma something to be longed for?

No. But I have to say, those scenes of suffering and bravery certainly helped capture the zeitgeist of the Eighties and Nineties. It helped keep AIDS in our collective consciousness. Drama and fear and compassion fueled activism and grassroots movements and the formation of community-based organizations. AIDS was overwhelmingly real. It was dramatic. It went to the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys and the Tonys. And it won. More than once.

So I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that HIV isn’t such a drama queen anymore. Not to say that I want people to suffer needlessly. I don’t. I just happen to think we’re not paying attention because it’s no longer hip, sexy, avant-garde and noble to do so. I think that our short attention spans need to be constantly reminded. And, there’s really not a lot of spectacular theatrics to grab our attention today. Well, not compared to the past.

But, trust me, it’s still there. There are some rather dramatic facts to consider:

  • People are still being infected. In the U.S. there are over fifty thousand new diagnoses a year. The CDC estimates that one in five persons with HIV doesn’t know it. That means they may not be protecting their sexual partners out of ignorance. That means more HIV.
  • Gay men, and/or Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) account for more than half of all new infections each year, and MSM is the only risk group in the country whose infections are increasing. MSM account for nearly half of all persons living with HIV in the United States today. Nearly half. And those are just the ones we know about. That means that for all the talk we hear about “AIDS is not a gay disease,” it is. That means sexually active MSM are having sex with HIV+ partners statistically more often than any other members of the general population- and being infected. HIV significantly and dramatically lives in the bodies of gay men.
  • HIV strains the budget of every state in the Union. So much so, that states have cut or are considering cuts in funding to drug assistance programs and other HIV support and prevention services. These services keep people alive at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. More money is needed with every new infection. That money comes out of your taxes.
  • People are still dying. Yes, the drugs help, and people with HIV are living longer lives, but the drugs don’t always work, and HIV mutates. Our immune systems are under a great deal of strain and one serious opportunistic infection can kill. I lost a friend just this year.
  • It’s not over. Families are still being traumatized and our community is being hurt by this epidemic. Here in Montana, with its relatively miniscule gay population, three new members joined my HIV+ support group last month, all gay men in their twenties- kids, really. All facing a lifetime radically different than they had hoped for.

And those are just some of the many points to consider.

Is it good that people are no longer dying and suffering in such huge numbers? Yes.
Is it good that we no longer gather in great numbers, sharing strong emotions, standing hopefully resolute in the face of pain and suffering and memory? I don’t think so.

Personally, I need to remember these facts and these people, because they’re part of my history, my community, my country and my world. I need to be reminded that my compassion, my voice and my heart are all still relevant. I need to be reminded that I’m not alone, I need to remind others of the same thing. And I think doing it once a year is the least I can do.

That’s why I’ll be going to a World AIDS Day service this year. That’s why I’ll be wearing a red ribbon, holding a candle in the dark, listening to words of grief, bravery and encouragement. To remember, to remind, to regroup.

Because I still think it’s important.

(also published on Bilerico)

Thankful

There’s a lot of hooey going around about Thanksgiving. It’s now a simple precursor to the consumer orgy that has become Christmas; it’s an excuse to eat too much and drink too much; it’s a day off from work; it’s the annual “suffering of the relatives” for some people I know (not me); it’s- well, you get the idea.

Gratitude means “the quality of being thankful”, which is all well and good, but who gets to define what I should or shouldn’t be thankful for? The media? The merchants? The churches? The family?

Personally, I think gratitude is simply honesty. Gratitude is looking with appreciation at the reality of my life and seeing the webs of goodness that hold it together. Gratitude is an honest encounter with reality that is open to wonder, curiosity, joy and surprise. Gratitude, for me, is just appreciation that is given the time to look.

That means I get to define it.

I wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving.
~Greg

Ya Gotta Have…

My dad’s going in for a heart catheterization tomorrow. It’s really no big deal, people do this all the time. My dad is having some symptoms that needed checking out, and he isn’t in mortal danger (we’re assured by the doctor), but my mom’s a nervous wreck and subsequently, or simply because she’s showing him it’s okay to be, he’s showing signs of worry.

I’ll be driving them over tomorrow- actually going home for dinner and to sleep in my old room so we can get an early start. I wanted to be there for them, because they’ve been so kind and generous to me through this particularly weird period in my life.

Blessed, yes. But still weird.

I never thought that at 44 years old I would have virtually no income, relying on my parents more than I like, be taking a fistful of pills every day, and be as happy as I am. I never thought I, a very careful planner, could ever be happy without all the components I once thought were very necessary for success. And yet, I feel successful.

I have amazing people who love and care for me in ways that it would be difficult to imagine just a few years ago. I’ve reconnected with people I didn’t realize I missed. I’m doing things that don’t necessarily bring in a load of money, but they bring in loads of joy and satisfaction. I’ve had the time to spend in getting to know myself better, to write, to read, to play. Very blessed indeed.

My dad and I talked about some of this on Sunday. I wanted to make sure he knew how grateful I was to them both for all their love and help, and that I would be going with them to the hospital. He said, “Oh, shit. If it was me needing help you’d do the same for me, and you do. You do it for other people all the time, and your mom and I are proud of that because that’s they way we raised you.”

That they did. With a lot of heart.

Peaceful, Easy

It was 22 degrees outside this morning when Curly and I stepped out the front door for our morning run. Cold, but not too cold. I found myself having this conversation in my head:

I’m from Montana, dammit- I routinely walked to school in -40 degree weather, snow up to my eyelashes and I was a child. I can do this.

“You only lived a block from school, this is almost three miles. Fat chance.”

There was windchill and I was carrying a clarinet case for crying out loud. I am tough, I can do this. I’ve been out hunting in the mountains with guns and frikkin freezing feet and I didn’t cave in.

“You cried like a baby that time you were up in the mountains when you found out you were still an hour from the truck, remember?”

Oh. Well, yeah, but I was just a kid and I didn’t have enough socks to keep me warm. I’ve always had bad circulation, my feet were always cold, but I never complained. Boy, is my nose getting cold…

“Right, tough guy. You were sixteen, you embarrassed your father and scared the elk.”

Did I? I don’t remember that.

“Trust me, you were a mess.”

Ain’t that the truth, in more ways than one. But let me tell you something, Mr Killjoy: I’m gonna do this. Why do you always have to step in and try to convince me that I’m such a schmuck?

“‘Cause you let me.”

.

I couldn’t argue with that.

Thank You, Straight, White Women!

(Also published on Bilerico.com)
In the 1980′s, when AIDS transfixed and terrified the entire nation, decimated a generation of gay men and brought the concept of guilt and shame to a whole new (mostly sexual) level, something remarkable happened.

In the cities, ACT UP raised awareness of our anger and sadness, gay men’s advocacy groups sprang from pain and suffering and LGBT social service agencies were born out of frustration and feelings of helplessness in the face of open discrimination by established services. Our Lesbian sisters became our mothers and nurses. Our mothers and sisters became our advocates and protectors. And those very brave souls who self-identified as positive became our pioneers.

In rural America, it was different.

In rural America, being gay was/is not so well supported and buttressed by community and numbers. In rural America, LGBT people were and mostly continue to be the victims of jokes, derision and violence.

It has always been a fine line to walk, that place between integrity and safety. In rural America, the stigma of HIV drove most gay men and even some women deeper and deeper into the closet. Fear and concern for their safety kept ACT UP at a distance, a Bozeman Gay Men’s Health Crisis a laughable impossibility.

But some people stepped up.

In Montana, it was our mothers and sisters and friends. These were mostly, with a few notable exceptions, straight, white women who were not a threat to anyone’s faith or social structure.

They stepped into the gap where compassion should have been and created organizations that doled it out. They cajoled governments and churches and people in power to allocate money and space and time. They quilted and baked and visited hospitals and went to funerals and spoke at Rotary. Their faces were the familiar faces of compassion and reason in the increasing climate of fear that gripped us here, and I suspect much of rural America- and it was none too soon.

I remember the fear. I also remember the love and the dedication of these women that inspired me to overcome my fear as a closeted gay priest and sponsor the World AIDS Day Prayer Vigil at the Cathedral in Helena. I also became (somewhat) of an activist- limited by my fear and my priesthood. I suspect it was a completely familiar feeling to many gay men growing up in the wilds of Montana, the prairies of the Dakotas or the backwoods of Idaho and Wyoming at the time.

Those feelings that kept me and others like me in the shadows still linger, but more importantly, they are less powerful because of the dedication, perseverance, stubbornness and downright balls of these women.

So: Straight, White Women- Thank You. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

There’s only one problem: you might have done your job too well.

To this day in Montana (and I suspect it’s true in other places as well), most gay men’s health organizations, HIV testing sites, and state-governed departments that have a direct impact on our lives are not led or even staffed by gay men- and gay men remain the most severely saturated population with HIV here.

Why?

Maybe because we didn’t have to.

So dear women, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say gay men need your help one more time. We need you to help us get back in the saddle, because it’s high time we quit hiding and start taking control of our issues instead of complaining about them. It’s time to face discrimination and homophobia instead of hiding behind your apron strings. I think we can do it because you’ve bravely shown us how. But now, it may be time to start stepping back just a bit.

I don’t mean to imply that we don’t need you. We do. Please continue to be our teachers and mentors and cheerleaders and supporters as well as being our mothers. We especially need good mothers.

Because a good mother teaches her children to tell the truth, to make a bed, to use good manners, to survive a fight, to love, to learn, to thrive. In short, a good mother not only teaches her children to grow up and leave her and to make the world their own, she knows when her kid needs a swift kick in the ass- and gives it to him.

And I’m thinkin’ that’s just what we need.

Lazy Sunday Morning

I love them, and I don’t often get to indulge, but today I do.
I woke up late, leisurely breakfast w/ Ken and the dogs (he cooked), soft jazzy music, catching up on email and facebook and here. No one to worry about. It’s all perfect.

Yesterday, I successfully defended our time together from intrusion, including begging the indulgence of some of my favorite people who don’t get to see me very often, either. I knew I just needed to spend time not working on anything, not worrying about the future of HIV Prevention in Montana, not worrying about my people, not thinking I had to find all the answers. I just needed to be.

We finally went to see a matinee of Where the Wild Things Are (fantastic), had a take and bake pizza and decided to watch the Maltese Falcon at home. So low-pressure and sweet- especially after a very busy last few days of meetings.

Simple pleasures.

I’ll take them, and am extremely grateful

Best Policy

Every once in a while, someone says something to me that is so simple and so profound that it stops me in my tracks. That happened yesterday when I was speaking to the class at UM.

I had told my story (small-town Montana boy, priest, ex-priest, counselor, addiction, MRSA, HIV, etc) and shared my counseling philosophy (primarily Gestalt) and my life philosophy (primarily Positive). I had a great time, but I could tell some people just didn’t know what to do with me.

Afterward, a student said, “How could you be so brutally honest like that in front of strangers? I’m so impressed, I could never talk about those things in front of people.”

I made some kind of “it’s no big deal” remark, thanked her and we all left. Later, as I was walking to my car, I thought, “It is kind of a big deal, I never could have done that four years ago, but today, I don’t think twice about it. Maybe that’s why some people don’t know what to do with me.”

I played my hunch and did what I usually do when I need a fresh perspective- I called Ken.

Ken and I have this psychic sort of symbiosis. When I’m crazed, he’s calm and vice versa. He can help me clarify my thinking like no one else I know. And when he makes me frustrated, I realize how silly it is to be frustrated. Hard to explain, it just works. We both hold the same values and share a similar vision of life. Our enjoyment in each others triumphs and foibles echoes something that I can only call shared respect. I look at him and I think “Wow- he’s been to hell and back and maybe not even back and is still so giving and generous and kind.”

I’m amazed. Really. And I think he feels the same about me, too. He tells me, and sometimes I even believe him. More importantly, because I work at being honest with him more than anyone else, I trust how he sees me. He reminds me of who I am when I forget.

Anyway, I called Ken and told him the story. And this is what I remember him saying: “Once you see the shit for what it is, you never want to go back- hiding is no longer an option.”

And that’s true. I’ve seen the pain and grief and sorrow that being ashamed and dishonest have brought to me, my family, my friends and even strangers. I’ve seen the joy and pleasure that my honesty and integrity have brought the same. Am I always completely honest? Sadly, no. Am I better at it? Definitely- but only because I was in too much pain to continue, and it also made complete sense for me to change. That pain and that sense keep me from going back to that place. That and honesty.

If I can let go of my attachment to my image or position or idea or anything- and just be real, as real as I can, as real as I felt in that classroom, life flows so easily for me. Flows so easily that sometimes I forget.

But it’s so nice to be reminded….

Travel and Talk

Today I go to Missoula to the University of Montana to speak to Annie Sondag’s class “Theories of Health Behavior and Counseling” about my personal experience with HIV, to share some stories, answer some questions (and do some big-city shopping!). It’s one of my favorite things to do and places to be.
I also have become (officially, yesterday) part of the team at The Bilerico Project, a unique blogging cooperative of diverse LGBTIQ leaders, writers and activists from across the US. I feel very honored and grateful to have a wider audience (and a little nervous, truth be told). I’ll have a post up today, so keep an eye out.