World AIDS Day 2011

This time of the year is probably the best time (at least in our hemisphere) for World AIDS Day. Our twenty four hour days are filled with more darkness than light in December than any other month of the year. In some places it can be very dark and dreary, indeed. It’s an appropriate time of the year to remember the darkness of HIV.

The darkness can be frightening.

We have sometimes been very afraid here in our communities, in our states, in our country and in our world, because at times, it has been very, very dark. I especially remember the darkness and terror of 30 years ago when AIDS made itself known.

I also remember the panic that ensued- people bullied, driven from their families, homes, schools and places of employment out of fear and ignorance. Gay men were shamed and vilified openly by politicians and communities and churches.

I remember the shame that halted progress for research, treatment and prevention. I especially remember people- my friends- who wasted away in front of my eyes. Some died painfully and alone- their families too ashamed to ask for help or proper care.

We have lost good men, women and children to HIV/AIDS. Families have been broken, beautiful lives have been twisted by suffering.

It has been very dark, indeed.

But in this darkness, in this December, there always flickers the promise of light.

This disease can now be treated- treatment is now quite possibly the key to prevention. Shame has decreased. It is not gone, but it has decreased.

In this promise of light, I remember with gratitude the people whose bravery has driven away darkness. Whose voices refused to give in to hopelessness or complacency or fear. They got us here.

HIV is still here; it is still among us, it is still causing fear and shame. But the voices of reason and compassion have grown stronger.

You have heard those voices. You also are those voices. And when we use our voices to proclaim the truth- that disease is not a reason for judgment and shame- the light grows stronger.

When we refuse to give in to fear, we change for the better- and so does the world.

As a gay kid growing up in Montana, I remember walking in the cold dark of a wintery Big Sky, feeling alone, misunderstood and very small. But I also remember being under that same dark sky with friends and family, working happily to build a bonfire beside the skating pond. The dark of the night is no match for the voices of friends- especially when they’re united in a common purpose.

As a gay man living with HIV in a rural state, I know that my voice alone isn’t going to make much of a difference when it comes to education, treatment and prevention. It’s only together that we can truly make a significant difference for the lives of all HIV+ persons in our country and in our world. Because there is still work to be done. That’s why I”ll be going to a vigil tonight, holding a candle  in the dark with other people who know what it’s like to feel small and alone

The darkness never really goes away- but it’s also never a match for the voices and presence of friends. Especially when there’s a fire to build.

World AIDS Day: A Need To Remember

Because I think it’s still relevant, I’m reprinting (with a few updates) my column for World AIDS Day from last year. I may just continue to do so as long as it still makes sense….


Remember when World AIDS Day 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  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, new members joined my HIV+ support group this year,  most are 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.