Here we are, another World AIDS Day. I’ve been concerned this year about the fact that the focus on AIDS may have waned much more this year. For obvious reasons, the primary health focus across the globe has been on COVID-19. That’s where the urgency is—rapidly changing understandings of the virus, educating the public, battling persistent misinformation, encouraging testing, treating the sick, stopping the spread, searching for a cure and developing a vaccine.
Sounds a lot like AIDS, 1985. Or 1990. Or 1995.
In those years, I could name a couple of doctors, household names, in my home at least. Yes, I was as well aware of Dr. Anthony Fauci then as people all over the U.S. (and beyond) are today. Back then, it was ACT UP and Larry Kramer giving Fauci a hard time, demanding more. (Miss you, Larry.) I appreciated their activism, but often cringed, especially when Fauci was a target of their tactics. He’s already on our side. Shouldn’t we be working alongside him, thanking him, praising him? How odd that, for Fauci, those were better times in hindsight. This current pandemic has created a harsher, broader battleground. Now everyone has a say. During the AIDS crisis, many could go on with their daily lives as normal, maybe shunning water fountains and toilet seats in public restrooms due to ill-informed perceptions of how HIV could be contracted, but following the forfeited leadership of another U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, who kept his eyes on touting economic progress and completely ignored a medical catastrophe.
As I do every year, I worry that people have forgotten how devastating AIDS was when it went unchecked, when a positive HIV test result was, for so many, a slow, agonizing, humiliating, lonely death sentence that came with compassion from too few and judgment, hatred and shunning from too many. AIDS awakened the LGBTQ community, taking the activism that is so often pegged with beginning in 1969 at Stonewall and upping it exponentially. Lives depended on people stepping out of the closet and demanding to be seen and heard. So much of the progress we see today in terms of LGBTQ rights and acceptance can be traced back to this era when we learned and honed how to formally organize and demand change.
I’m still hoping for an AIDS vaccine or an outright cure. In the meantime, here are my three active wishes on World AIDS Day, 2020:
1) Learn about our past: I encourage people to reflect back on these times in order to honor those who died but also to appreciate the progress that has been made in terms of living a full, healthy life out of the closet. For fifteen minutes today, log off Twitter or set aside your gaming device and do a web search on AIDS history. Better yet, read more. There have been many times when I’ve recommended Randy Shilts’ compelling nonfiction book, And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987), truly the most important book I’ve ever read. You can easily purchase it through Amazon. (The first review that came up on the Canadian Amazon page for the book says, “Simply put, this is a MASTERPIECE of journalism.” I couldn’t agree more.) If fiction’s more your thing, check out more recent novels such as The Prettiest Star (2020) by Carter Sickels or Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers (2018). A longtime, somewhat surreal young adult favorite of mine is TwoBoys Kissing (2103) by David Levithan.
2) Support AIDS organizations: As 2020 has seen all eyes focused on the coronavirus, I worry about AIDS charities that continue to seek funding for research, medical care and daily supports for people who have been diagnosed with AIDS or HIV. When I searched my local AIDS charity, AIDS Vancouver, to get ready for the annual AIDS Walk in September, I found nothing. Not even a virtual walk or a do-it-yourself event where you choose your own walking adventure and donate. (I did my own walk anyway and made a donation.) I suspect that most non-profits have taken big hits to their budgets this year. Many regular donors have suffered their own financial setbacks during various forms of lockdown. If you can contribute something to the AIDS charity of your choice, I know it will be greatly appreciated.
3) Shatter the stigma over people being HIV positive: Somewhere around 1995, there was a tipping point in AIDS care. With new antiviral drugs, testing positive for HIV no longer represented an almost certain death sentence. People continued to live and thrive. Now, more than ever, a simple pill a day allows people who happen to be HIV+ to manage just fine. It amazes me that someone can be diagnosed as HIV positive and, with treatment, become undetectable. They cannot pass on HIV. Admittedly, I’ve had to read about this many times for it to sink in. That’s because I was conditioned to believe that AIDS equaled death as I came out during the peak of the crisis. In my mind, fear of AIDS helped me survive. Fear can be a funny thing. Like a phobia, it can hang around, even when logic dictates that it is misplaced, that it can go away, that, yes, everything is fine now. I am so thankful that being HIV+ can be well-managed. Sometimes it takes listening to calm, rational people who are HIV+ to quell my old-school fears and to offer the full compassion, dignity and acceptance that we began fighting for so long ago. Here’s an eleven-minute TED Talk that can help end the stigma.
I can’t say, “Happy World AIDS Day.” That sounds misplaced when I have friends and acquaintances who died of AIDS. I continue to remember Farrell, Stephen, Steven, Don, Jose, Greg and others. Still, I am happy we’ve designated this day so that we can pause, reflect and continue to grow.