I remember December 1st as a day when people gathered in terror and grief with candles and tears listening to words that couldn’t begin to touch the pain and anger and sadness.
I remember when it was a time for all kinds of people to gather together, people that probably wouldn’t be in the same room for any other reason. At World AIDS Day services in the early Nineties, I remember seeing queer activists, quietly closeted gay men and women, Episcopal and Catholic priests, Native American leaders, Protestant ministers, atheists, nuns and agnostics.
I saw elected officials, Republicans and Democrats, wheelchair-bound elderly, parents, children, nurses, doctors, cowboys, lawyers, accountants, little old ladies and, once, a rodeo clown. All coming together, all looking for comfort and hope and compassion among others who could maybe understand.
We don’t really do that now. And maybe it’s okay that we don’t.
Maybe it’s good that the terror I remember so vividly on the faces of close friends and complete strangers is no longer there. Maybe it’s good that people aren’t dying so fast and so painfully, isolated and afraid. Maybe it’s good that we’re not so traumatized by fear and grief and anger.
Is terror a good thing? Is a painful death beneficial? Is emotional trauma something to be longed for?
No. But I have to say, those scenes of suffering and bravery certainly helped capture the zeitgeist of the Eighties and Nineties. It helped keep AIDS in our collective consciousness. Drama and fear and compassion fueled activism and grassroots movements and the formation of community-based organizations.
AIDS was overwhelmingly real. It was dramatic. It went to the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys and the Tonys. And it won. More than once.
So I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that HIV isn’t such a drama queen anymore. Not to say that I want people to suffer needlessly. I don’t. I just happen to think we’re not paying attention because it’s no longer hip, sexy, avant-garde and noble to do so.
Our short attention spans need to be constantly reminded. And, there’s really not a lot of spectacular theatrics to grab our attention today. Well, not compared to the past.
But, trust me, it’s still there. There are some rather dramatic facts to consider:
- People are still being infected. In the U.S. there are over fifty thousand new diagnoses a year. The CDC estimates that one in five persons with HIV doesn’t know it. That means they may not be protecting their sexual partners out of ignorance. That means more HIV.
- Gay men, and/or Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) account for more than half of all new infections each year, and MSM is the only risk group in the country whose infections are increasing. MSM account for nearly half of all persons living with HIV in the United States today. Nearly half. And those are just the ones we know about. That means that for all the talk we hear about “AIDS is not a gay disease,” it is. That means sexually active MSM are having sex with HIV+ partners statistically more often than any other members of the general population- and being infected. HIV significantly and dramatically lives in the bodies of gay men.
- HIV strains the budget of every state in the union. So much so, that states have cut or are considering cuts in funding to drug assistance programs and other HIV support and prevention services. These services keep people alive at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. More money is needed with every new infection. That money comes out of your taxes.
- People are still dying. Yes, the drugs help, and people with HIV are living longer lives, but the drugs don’t always work, and HIV mutates. Our immune systems are under a great deal of strain and one serious opportunistic infection can kill. I lost a friend just this year.
- It’s not over. Families are still being traumatized and our community is being hurt by this epidemic. Here in Montana, with its relatively miniscule gay population, three new members joined my HIV+ support group last month, all gay men in their twenties- kids, really. All facing a lifetime radically different than they had hoped for.
And those are just some of the many points to consider.
Is it good that people are no longer dying and suffering in such huge numbers? Yes.
Is it good that we no longer gather in great numbers, sharing strong emotions, standing hopefully resolute in the face of pain and suffering and memory? I don’t think so.
Personally, I need to remember these facts and these people, because they’re part of my history, my community, my country and my world. I need to be reminded that my compassion, my voice and my heart are all still relevant. I need to be reminded that I’m not alone, I need to remind others of the same thing. And I think doing it once a year is the least I can do.
That’s why I’ll be going to a World AIDS Day service this year. That’s why I’ll be wearing a red ribbon, holding a candle in the dark, listening to words of grief, bravery and encouragement. To remember, to remind, to regroup.
Because I still think it’s important.
D Gregory Smith is a gay, HIV+ native Montanan; a Rome-educated Episcopal priest and a licensed mental health counselor.