The numbers continue to dwindle. AIDS isn’t what it used to be. There are buzzier causes: ALS, prostate cancer, refugee resettlement. Staffs at the past two schools where I’ve worked attend charity dinners and auctions each September to support research for medical conditions a few of our students have battled. There are other banners I want to get behind, like mental health, everything pertaining to animals and the environment and, yes, refugees.
But AIDS remains closest to my heart. I first grappled with coming out back when Geraldo Rivera reported about GRID—Gay-Related Immune Deficiency—on “20/20”. It was the acronym that preceded AIDS, with a heavy emphasis on “gay”. Gay men were getting sick; gay men were dying. I signed up to volunteer with the AIDS Resource Center in Dallas before I’d ever so much as kissed a boy. I was profoundly impacted by Randy Shilts’ agonizing account of the early years of the AIDS crisis (And the Band Played on) and the haunting, Oscar-winning documentary “Common Threads: Stories from the AIDS Quilt” before I’d ever had a date. Gay may technically be synonymous with happy, but in those days it was heavily weighted with fear, maybe even death. AIDS will always play a part in my identity as a gay man.
|I made sure to avoid any proximity to this sign. Just not me.|
And so I showed up at the Roundhouse Community Centre yesterday for yet another AIDS Walk. I first participated in a walk twenty-six years ago in Los Angeles, a decidedly grimmer time when the people with full-on AIDS sat in wheelchairs pushed by loved ones. Some bravely walked, with or without a cane. We knew who had it. Their faces were gaunt, unnaturally tanned and KS lesions dotted their skin. I remember trying to project hope. You can beat this. The AZT will work. The cure is coming. But my sunshiny disposition faded after seeing the ravaged bodies of so many men in their prime, from watching mothers push their thirty-year-old sons, from seeing the inequity as one healthy-looking “longtime companion” supported the weakened one.
So much has changed. In the past year I’ve briefly dated two HIV+ men, each “undetectable”. They are among the lucky few who were diagnosed thirty years ago and somehow managed to survive the darkest years. They take their meds but show none of what once were the telltale signs of AIDS. They manage their condition. The hope now is real. Still, it’s not like diabetes or epilepsy. There remains a sense of shame and even shunning from potential partners. As I listened to both of them tell their story, one was wracked with guilt while the other’s language was loaded with affirmations delivered defensively rather than convincingly. The mental toll remains great.
In truth, I’m out of touch about what it means to live with HIV or AIDS today. I don’t have a clue what the needs are. I don’t know what is within reach and what remains a loftier goal in terms of medical research. Where are things at in terms of a vaccine? Why won’t my medical insurance cover PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis)? What are the inequities regarding prevention, detection and treatment in developing countries?
How did I become so removed? Why did we stop rallying? Where did everyone go? Thousands turned out for AIDS Walks in the early ‘90s. In recent years, only a few hundred show up. Contrast this with the fact that, according to the CBC, “hundreds of thousands” showed up for the Pride parade in Vancouver only seven weeks ago. Something seems amiss.
I need to re-educate myself as to where things are at regarding AIDS. I need a better sense of how the donations help. Despite my ignorance, I know I must continue to participate in this annual event. For me, the AIDS Walk is a meditative time when I honor the thousands who died from AIDS in bleaker times. Knowing that HIV is no longer a death sentence makes it more critical that I remember friends whose bodies and minds battled desperately and ultimately futilely and who died at twenty-eight, at thirty-five, at forty-one. I continue to mourn the passing of Stephen, Don, Farrell, Steve, Greg and Jose. The anger is gone but the tragedy only feels greater. All their potential wiped away. All so unnecessary.
I keep hoping the number of walkers will stabilize and that more gay men will show up again to reflect and remember. Pride celebrations offer more opportunities to ogle glamorous drag queens and ripped studs in Speedos. Pride leaves many feeling good, but the AIDS Walk stirs trickier emotions and commemorates an era that must not be forgotten.