Once upon a time, there was a boy who grew up in a small town- in a time when things were said to be simple- but they were not.
He was unlike the other kids in ways that weren’t always noticeable to the people around him. He felt things a bit more keenly. He noticed things that other kids didn’t. He wasn’t great at sports, he wasn’t big and strong.
But he was smart.
And sometimes that meant he got picked on even more than other kids.
So he used that.
It made him tough. His parents were good, loving people. His church provided comfort. His books helped him escape.
Maybe it was God, maybe it was chance- it doesn’t really matter what made him different. He just was.
The fact remained that this boy- indistinguishable from a million other little boys- just wanted to be loved, even though he was different.
And when he grew up, he still wanted to be loved – sometimes desperately. Sometimes he trusted people who weren’t trustworthy- simply because the promise of love is often enough to make us overlook danger and potential tragedy.
The promise of love.
That’s what brings us here today.
That’s why I got infected. That’s how I got infected.
The promise of love. Not what you think about when you think of AIDS.
But I want you to think about it.
When I moved back to Montana almost seven years ago, I made a promise: that no gay kid would ever be so starved for love and support- would not be so handicapped by shame- that they couldn’t stay here and have a happy, successful, healthy and safe life if they wanted to. I would do everything in my power to make it happen.
So I came out as gay- and HIV positive- just to show that there is no shame in having a disease. It’s a virus, it’s not a judgment.
A microscopic being that happens to live in my body. And I want to keep it from living in any one else’s.
And so do you, I hope.
This disease has been around for over three decades. And yet the state of Montana has never allocated state funds for its prevention. Not a penny.
Which begs the question- why?
Is it because of the shame at how the disease is transmitted?
Is it because we might have to talk about sex, needles, addiction and shame and fear?
Isn’t thirty two years long enough to avoid having this hard conversation?
In the Montana that little boy grew up in- that I grew up in- we prided ourselves on helping out where it was needed. We filled sandbags, we stopped when it looked like people were in trouble on the road, we ran to the fire house when the siren rang.
But not for HIV. Not for AIDS. Well, let me correct that.
A few very brave people did stand up. They braved ridicule and stigma to hold candlelight vigils and to hold the hands of people whose parents were too afraid to touch them. I know. I was there. I held some of those hands. And so did Laurie Kops and probably a few others in this room.
I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but it’s important that we get back to something very basic here in the state of Montana.
Caring for our people.
It’s time to recognize that all people deserve the promise of love in their lives. Deserve the dignity and respect that I believe God gives everyone simply by being born. Deserves the respect of having information and materials at their disposal provided by the state that is charged with enabling public health and well-being. It’s what I want out of my taxes- I hope it’s what you want from yours.
There are a few legislators here you can tackle on the way out….
My life is good. I have family that love me, a partner who is always there for me and more friends than any man ever deserves.
But it could be better.
Somewhere in the state of Montana there is a kid who doesn’t believe that he’s worthy of love.
And he’s part of our responsibility. Because he does deserve love. And he deserves help to be healthy about it.
Shame is keeping us from health.
Kinda crazy, isn’t it?
It’s time to have those hard conversations.
It’s time to stop shame in its tracks.
It’s time to return the promise of love to all Montanans.
Thank you for listening- and for this awesome award.
2013 World AIDS Day honorees Stephanie Cole, Chris Gehring, Chantz Thilmony, Greg Smith Lisa Fairman with Gov Bullock and DPHHS Director Opper
Me and a really cool Governor