In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was assumed that you were a gay man if you had contracted HIV/AIDS. If you got AIDS, there was no staying in the closet with it. Many men had to come out twice to family and friends. They had to tell them that they had HIV/AIDS and often at the same time reveal they were gay. Some of their families and friends became an incredible part of their support group and others experienced rejection and anger. You never quite knew what to expect. It was horrible to watch a dying man be rejected by his biological family. On the other hand, it was an inspiration to watch his LGBT family and friends embrace him with love and support.
One of the most difficult moments in my life was when a dear friend made his last wish to see his parents one more time before he made the transition. He asked me to call them. My friend had not told them he had HIV/AIDS and that he was gay. With great apprehension, I made the call and, as gently as I could, I told his family that he had very little time left on this planet. Without missing a beat, they said that he deserves to die for his sins and they most certainly would not come to him. I then had to tell my friend that his folks were not coming to visit him. It was simply awful to watch his face and eyes as I told him about his family.
So, there was no closet with AIDS. People who contracted HIV/AIDS become activists in both communities, as did many of their family and friends. This wide network of people taking care of the sick and dying also began fighting for research, new treatments, and healthcare and insurance reform. Reacting to dire circumstances, this network served as the catalyst for revolutionary changes on so many fronts and gave new definition to courage.
With new treatments for HIV/AIDS, it is no longer a death sentence for most and people are living fulfilling and productive lives. But with improved medical interventions, the closet door has swung shut once again, diminishing our ability to battle this epidemic. Many of those who seroconvert are keeping this news to themselves and leaving family and friends in the dark. Some hold shame and fear of judgment because they contracted the disease despite knowing how to prevent it. They don't want to explain how they got it.
Unfortunately, some of those feelings are valid, but for the wrong reasons. Often, people are quick to judge those who contract HIV, offering little compassion or support. They feel that the person should have known better, especially since information on prevention is available today that wasn’t accessible 25 years ago. This harsh attitude prevents many from getting early treatment and sharing their journey with others.
Because of my experience as an HIV/AIDS activist, I often receive calls from young people who have contracted the disease. They seek advice and information on how to proceed. Recently, I was at a large dinner party filled with young people in their 20s or low 30s. During the evening, the conversation turned to HIV/AIDS and most people seated at the table volunteered that they knew no one who was HIV positive. Two of the people at the table had recently called and sought my advice. They sat quietly and chose not to reveal their status. My heart broke for them.
HIV/AIDS is going back into the closet and it is not a healthy development. Of course, everyone has the right to choose their own journey, but the closet can be just as harmful for people with HIV as it can for LGBT people. Personally, I believe that the closet leaves the individual alone at a time of great need. They are less likely to receive the latest information on advances in treatment, while being more likely to live in isolation and without a support network.
On the other hand, “coming out” not only encourages these things, but inspires family and friends to join the struggle to find a cure. Individuals who remain in the closet deny the community their talents and those of their friends and family.
We must remember that people are still dying from HIV/AIDS. And rising infection rates are alarming, especially among young gay men and African American women. As a community, we need to support people with HIV/AIDS and encourage them to come out. When they do reveal their status, each and everyone one of us should react with support, love and care.
As it has always been, the closet is a deadly place for the soul, no matter why you are in it.