Still With Us

After 20 Years and Millions of Deaths 
We Continue to Grapple With AIDS


On June 5, 1981, a relatively small item appeared in the Centers for Disease Control's "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report," detailing the deaths from Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia of five young gay men in Los Angeles (please see page 20). Soon thereafter, reports of the same phenomenon came out of the San Francisco and New York City gay communities. The strange new disease was in the beginning called GRID, or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, unintentionally setting the stage for a homophobic farce of non-response reaching as high as the Oval Office.

Even after the phenomenon was renamed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), Ronald Reagan, the "great communicator," still couldn't utter the word AIDS; his lack of leadership, and that of the elder Bush to follow, effectively helped turn a medical disease into a moral tragedy.

With no leadership from the top, condemnation and damnation from the radical religious right, hysteria on the part of the public, and the cavalier, arrogant and self-righteous attitude of much of the medical establishment early on, gay men with AIDS at that time in history were doomed.

In 1983, the human T Cell leukemia virus was identified in patients with AIDS. Found to be the virus that causes AIDS, it was eventually renamed human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

By the late '80s, the government finally decided to take some action, and mailed an AIDS education pamphlet to 110 million American homes, but by 1989, the number of AIDS cases reported in the United States had reached 100,000, most of them gay or bisexual men.

In June 1991, the 10-year anniversary of the disease, more than 250,000 Americans suffered from AIDS, and up to 1.5 million were shown to be HIV-positive.

Although the public attitude was challenged when Rock Hudson died, the revelation by Magic Johnson in 1991 that he was HIV-positive, riveted the nation; now the face of AIDS was changing. Less than a year later, the federal government unveiled an advertising campaign to inform the public that AIDS affects more than just gays and IV-drug users.

After 14 years, after devastating losses, the Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 7, 1995, approved the first protease inhibitor, a new class of drugs that finally held out hope for the thousands upon thousands of HIV-positive Americans. Almost overnight, the drugs changed AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable chronic illness. In fact, by early 1997, AIDS deaths had dropped 13%--the first significant drop in the pandemic's history.

But, only three years later, the present, AIDS is once again rising in America, and is threatening to wipe out the continent of Africa. Worldwide, more than 36 million people are now infected with HIV, with more than 16,000 new infections each day.

While we can count the number of people lost to the disease and how many more will probably die, no one can possibly measure the losses in the form of books never written, houses never built, gay senior citizens never encountered holding hands on a park bench.

The toll on friends, lovers, families and society at large can be neither measured nor fathomed. As a community, it's left us with scars that, at 20 years, we hardly even distinguish anymore.

While we've risen to the challenge and offered incredible support and love for friends and, often, strangers, we cannot deny that two decades of living under the specter of this dreadful disease has changed us all.

Many of us encountered AIDS after having successfully purged ourselves of society's condemnation for being gay. But how many others have had to equate being gay with AIDS as they struggled to accept their identity?

After all, a gay person who was 10 years old in 1981 and is now 30 has never really existed during a time when HIV/AIDS was not part of life. Like it or not, after 1981 "gay" and "AIDS" became linked inexorably.

Perhaps it's the way AIDS has colored how we see the future (or don't) that's to blame for the increases in HIV-infection.

For many people that fatigue has led to an end in safer-sex practices, a sort of rebellion by embrace. Thus AIDS exhaustion begets more AIDS--a handy little trick by this disease the craftiness of which we should never underestimate.

While some may argue that choosing to risk contracting HIV is permissible in a free society, one wonders how many people "choosing" HIV have an unrealistic sense of what actually living with the disease will mean. It's not pretty, and given a choice, it's hard to fathom that anyone with HIV/AIDS would keep the disease.

So, what about the next 20 years? Despite their noble efforts, we cannot rely on scientists to bring us a cure or a vaccine.

We--LGBTs of all colors--must, once again start raising hell in an effort to make our government--finally--talk honestly about HIV/AIDS and sex. This country's puritanical streak has led to 20 years of pathetic educational programs and we, as a community, should start screaming and yelling for real, honest sex education.

Our AIDS and LGBT organizations are doing tremendous jobs in trying to continue educating the government and the public, but they can't do it all, nor should they have to.

We must be ready to take to the streets once more if we have to, and we must, somehow, instill self-love and self-determination in our young--in all our young, not just the boys on the west side of town.

HIV/AIDS is now rampant in communities of color, particularly among women and young gay and bisexual men. Education and fund-raising efforts need desperately to reach communities of color.

Just as the majority heterosexual community was not there for the gay community because, let's face it, they simply did not empathize with us, the predominantly white gay community now needs to find empathy with people of color, who are facing a disease we know all too well.

So, fatigued or not, those of us still lucky enough to be alive have a responsibility to help gay youth survive in this world. AIDS has helped make us all into elders and, as such, we have a responsibility to young gay people. They may be coming of age in a time of AIDS but at least they have us, hopefully, to help them maneuver their lives so they can arrive, someday, at a place where AIDS is part of the past.