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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

WHY THE NEXT GENERATION NEEDS US TO TALK ABOUT AIDS





Older gay men, many
having lost lovers and friends, seem to prefer more pleasant subjects than the
horrors we lived through.





As three decades of
AIDS were marked in 2011, it was startling to see the degree to which
Americans’ notoriously short memories had already begun to airbrush away the
experience of their gay countrymen’s devastation and defiance in the plague
years. Accustomed by now to thinking of the “face” of AIDS as that of an
impoverished, dark-skinned African woman or baby, even the nation’s
best-educated young people seem not to be aware of the plague’s impact here in
their own homeland, beginning in the very decade when many of them were born.



“The de-gaying
thing really worked,” said author and Dartmouth College professor Michael
Bronski. “For better or worse, we did our jobs.” As evidence, Bronski described
a class he taught about AIDS, called “Plagues and Politics.” He said his
students couldn’t understand why he spoke of AIDS as a “gay disease.” Even a
lesbian student told him, “I thought it was a little weird you were talking so
much about ‘gay.’” She believed AIDS “was Africa and inner-city drug users, but
mostly Africa.” Another student said, “I was wondering how you were going to
bring in the U.S. part.”




Young gay men can
be forgiven for not knowing the details of their community’s recent travails.
They didn’t live through the nightmare, after all. At the start of the
millennium,
The New York Times noted that a
generation of young gay men had by then already come of age without seeing
their peers suffer and die from the horrific and disfiguring effects of HIV
before HAART brought such dramatic change for many of those living with the
virus.




Older gay men, many
having lost lovers and friends and possibly living with HIV themselves, seem to
prefer pleasanter subjects than the horrors we lived through. It’s
understandable, to an extent. As with returning war vets, the grief and shock
sustained by our wounded warriors keep so many of us silent.










Unfortunately, our
silence means our younger brothers are far less likely to learn about the
bravery, courage, and creativity with which our people faced the fight of our
lives, for our lives. “Gay men in their 40s and 50s don’t want to talk about
AIDS,” said longtime activist and former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
director Urvashi Vaid. Hundreds of men in that very age group streamed by as
we talked on a brilliant August Saturday outside Joe, the Provincetown
coffeehouse. They looked festive, if grayer and a bit less slender than when
we partied in our 20s at the Boatslip’s daily tea dance. “We all have PTSD
[post-traumatic stress disorder],” said Vaid.



Our silence means
the organizations we created to care for our sick and dying friends and
neighbors are struggling to raise funds as they continue to care for people
with HIV. In Miami, CARE Resource director Rick Siclari said, “White gay men
are not giving as much today.” Now the agency is hoping its new clients, many
of them black and Latino, will participate in fund-raising by giving them the
chance to make smaller donations, in the $5 to $10 range.




It’s as if we
haven’t learned one of the most important lessons that we ourselves taught
the world: “Silence = Death,” as ACT UP famously put it. It would seem that
silence is inexcusable when gay and bisexual men of all races continue to
bear the overwhelming brunt of the American AIDS epidemic.




Even in hard-hit
San Francisco, Stop AIDS Project director Kyriell Noon told me in April 2010
how dismayed he is that HIV has become so seemingly commonplace in a place so
harshly affected by it. “I have been surprised by how blasé so many men seem
to be about HIV,” he said. “If they’re positive, they seem blasé about
transmission. If they’re negative, they seem blasé about acquisition. If they
don’t know their status, they’re blasé about that.Nobody seems to give a shit
anymore. There is no urgency these days.”






As of June 2010, AIDS had killed 19,199 San Franciscans.
Nearly 16,000 more were living with HIV, 88% of them gay and bisexual men. Of
them, 9,062 not only had HIV but also had experienced at least one of the
conditions that are considered “AIDS-defining.” These “classic” markers of
advanced untreated HIV disease date from the earliest years when people learned
they had HIV only at the point they developed the purple lesions of Kaposi’s
sarcoma on their skin, or were rushed to the hospital with life-threatening 
Pneumocystis
carinii
 pneumonia. The conditions still show up in considerable
numbers of people diagnosed with AIDS in San Francisco. 







Walking toward Market Street after finishing my interview
with Kyriell Noon at Stop AIDS’ Sanchez Street office in the Castro district, a
poster on the Muni bus stop caught my eye. It showed a muscular white man’s
back. I focused on the words “Stay Negative” tattooed across the back of his
hands, folded behind his head.




Clearly, San Francisco has not forgotten
the plague that filled the bay with tears and forced its citizens to rise up
and show the world what “traditional values” look like when they are practiced
rather than preached. A stroll through the city’s AIDS Memorial Grove reveals
in the beautifully landscaped, serene seven acres within Golden Gate Park a
deep ache in the heart of this city’s gentle people. The words “Healing, Hope,
Remembrance” are engraved in the granite pavers of the grove’s Circle of
Friends. Yet even here, in this sacred space honoring the memory of the many
whose lives have been cut short, and the many more uninfected friends and
family, still living, who have been forever changed by AIDS, it’s also clear:
We want to move on. On another stone is etched the Yiddish toast “L’Chaim — to
Life,” a reminder to live while we are alive. As early as 1995, Eric Rofes,
then living in San Francisco, wrote in Reviving the Tribe that we
were worn out by the need to keep constant vigilance and live in perpetual
crisis.





Thirty years since American gay men
began to die of AIDS, effective but expensive and toxic treatment has rendered
infection with the virus that causes the fatal illness as close to a chronic,
manageable condition as it has ever been. Relieved after years of disease,
death, and the threat of infection hanging over every intimate encounter, many
privately insured middle-class gay men — including those living with HIV —
moved on. Talk among activists has grown more excited about finding a cure for
HIV. But even a cure will be of limited benefit when half of those infected
with the virus don’t know it. Even in San Francisco, the epicenter of AIDS in gay
America, most people who test HIV-positive don’t realize they are infected
because they have no symptoms.





Today, the national gay political organizations, once the
most outspoken champions of gay men at risk for HIV, are consumed with fighting
for the right to “marriage equality.” In their view, the HIV-focused
organizations are “taking care of” the politics of the epidemic. But those
organizations stopped advocating for gay men back in the 1980s, when they
realized women and children were less “controversial” than standing up for the
gay and bisexual men most in need of advocacy because most widely affected.




With no one looking
out for gay and bisexual men, especially men of color, and with the pernicious
1987 Helms amendment still blocking federal funding for realistic prevention
programs, taxpayer dollars intended for HIV prevention continue to be
squandered on general information campaigns rather than paying for targeted,
explicit campaigns aimed at those who most need them. Prevention educators
continue to puzzle over how best to reach both young and not-so-young men with
messages of hope and healing that are desperately needed by people who
experience appalling cruelty and hatred at the hands of peers, too often
parents, and American society at large. Meanwhile, recent research into gay
men’s love lives is yielding fascinating new ways to tailor HIV prevention
strategies based on an individual’s personal information.




The deadly silence
resounds across gay America, from New York to San Francisco, in bedrooms and in
boardrooms where the leaders of gay and lesbian organizations meet to discuss
their priorities, which always seem to leave out HIV. Young gay men don’t want
to hear about the struggle and suffering of their community in the darkest
years of the plague. Older men, survivors, likewise don’t want to talk about
it, instead withdrawing from the gay community after years of grief and rage.




As a fourth decade
of AIDS begins, the challenge remains to transmute our losses and victories in
the AIDS years into an inspiring story of love in action. As always, it will be
up to each of us to draw the strength we need from our individual and
collective resilience. Spanning the generations of age and experience, mentors
can help teach their younger protégés to tap their, and our, resilience by
sharing our stories of courageous men and women who refused to surrender. In
these stories of this latter-day army of lovers lie gay America’s heroic legacy,
our hope, and our future.





SOURCE: ADVOCATE

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