For years, rarely do I speak of my own journey with HIV/AIDS and the toll it takes on those who are negative. After all, through some miracle, I am healthy and made it through the horror of the 15 years when to have the disease was usually a death sentence. How could one complain when you have been given the gift of life that was taken from so many of my very young friends?
First, let me be very clear.
My behavior was no different from that of my many beloved friends who passed from this horrible scourge. I engaged in what today would be called risky sex since we had no idea at the time that it was risky. Nor am I ashamed of my sense of sexual liberation at the time. The mood of the late 1970's was one of joy and celebration of our sexuality. The time before HIV/AIDS was a time of coming out and in a tribal way creating a community out of the ashes of oppression.
One by one, week in and week out, our young friends started dying.
For many of us, it was the beginning of our own personal holocaust. Over fifteen years, I lost well over 300 friends (most under 40) and gave at least 90 eulogies in one two year period. For those rare weeks when no one died and there wasn't a funeral, they were spent in the Sherman Oaks AIDS ward which was created for people in the Los Angeles area that got sick. At times there would be two to three friends in it at the same time.
In the early years, no one would touch us.
Undertakers wouldn't bury us. Health care workers wouldn't come into our homes. Doctors and nurses refused to care for us. Insurance companies said it was a self inflicted disease and wouldn't paid claims. Restaurants would turn people away who obviously were sick. The United States Senate almost passed a piece of legislation by Senator Helms that would have required everyone with HIV/AIDS to be tattooed. There was a ballot initiative in California that would have required 'camps' to quarantine people with HIV/AIDS.
As a result of the world turning their collective backs on us, the community started up and show a noble and courageous spirit that has rarely been seen in such a genocide.
The LGBT community and our allies learned to change tubes, insert needles, become home care experts and to love unconditionally those who families abandoned them. We created healthcare systems, laundries, pet walking services, raised money, created institutions that cooked and delivered meals, founded food banks and so much more.
Working with some medical personnel, we learned how to implement euthanasia (including myself) and give a dignified and pain free death to our beloved ones.
My heart will always remember the lesbian community who stepped forward and joined us, side by side, as we took care of the sick and dying gay men. They became leaders of our organizations and made sure our battle for freedom did not die with HIV/AIDS. Their actions is a lesson of love and compassion that should never be forgotten in the story of these times.
My entire middle age was given to HIV/AIDS, death, devastation and grief. From about 37 to 52, the disease dominated my life. Even in the most dark moments we never lost our sense of humor, our will to live nor our love for our brothers who suffered so much. Nor can I ever forget how quickly the world turned on us when we most needed them. Our government failed totally.
While I realize how grateful I am on World AIDS Day to be breathing it does not wipe out those horrible, horrible years from my life. Although I feel HIV/AIDS stole fifteen years of my life, the fact of the matter is that I was able to witness unbelievable courage, unconditional love and sheer determination in the face of death to be a free human being.
Today is certainly a time for reflection, memory and to finish the uncompleted job of ending HIV/AIDS and finding not just a vaccine but a cure.