World AIDS Day is today. It’s an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness. Founded in 1988, World AIDS Day was the first ever global health day.
But back when I was first coming Ito terms with my reality as a gay man, there was no World Aids Day. I was a naive 19 when the first hint of the “gay cancer” made its way to eastern NC in the summer of 1981. And no one knew anything about it.
At first, I rationalized that it was a big city disease. But it still terrified me. We knew so little other than hysteria. If it was indeed a plague that affected only gay men, then I was at risk if I acted on my impulses: having sex with a man, kissing a man, sitting on a toilet seat after a man, or, most horridly, being bitten by a mosquito that carried HIV.
I was struggling with my faith at that time, trying to find a higher power that made sense for me. I was reading the Bible for the first time (my parents were basically agnostic) and flirting with idea of a loving Christian God.
As the next years rolled by and more men I knew became ill, I had an epiphany: my sexuality and America’s version of that Christian God were not compatible (fuck you, Ronald Regan and the Religious Right), and I had to make a choice.
Fear of death won. I pulled that closet door to a hard no, got involved with lovely young lady, and went another way. That’s how I survived those first ignorant years of the Crisis. In 1986, she and I split. It was amicable, but we both knew, without speaking the truth, what that truth was.
Shortly afterwards, I kicked open the door for the last time and, wonderful Bible notwithstanding, turned my back on American Christianity, which obviously didn’t care if died — or worse wanted me to.
I got active. Larry Kramer was my hero, and I started acting up, and from that moment on, everywhere I made my home, the first thing I did was volunteer for whatever ASO or AIDS support organization that community had. Including here.
I survived, and so many people in my life didn’t. That may or may not have been an act of some kind of god. But HIV made that choice of faith for me, and I knew that eradication of HIV in my community—in every community—would always be a priority for me.
Today, the paralyzing terror of those first years has mellowed into concerned action, and 40 years later, I’m still in that fight along with so many of you. I’m not frightened of dying any longer. And I still say on an almost daily basis: fuck you Republican Party and Religious Right. As the current anti-vax movement painfully illustrates, they still threaten America’s health daily.
What I wouldn’t have given to have a vaccine against HIV produced and distributed so quickly back in the day. Instead, it was five years and thousands of lives later before Regan even mentioned AIDS. Today, that attitude still exists among followers of the extreme right dogma.
And it’s still killing people.