World AIDS Day 2019.
Yes, we still do this.
Someday, I believe we won’t have to, but even then we will continue the tradition. Because it’s important to remember.
One day, when the virus is gone, the world will still need to know this ‘thing’ happened. That millions of people died.
They didn’t have ‘a bad day.’ They suffered and died.
Some folks stood up; some became complicit through their silence.
We tell young people today “it gets better.” And, it does.
That phrase today is associated with bullying and self-acceptance. But in the 1980s and 90s, the ‘better’ we needed seemed far, far away.
And an uplifting mantra repeated at our reflections in a mirror didn’t solve the problem.
I can remember a couple of firsts when that ‘problem’ collided with my life on a first-person basis.
In December 1986, on the road with the national touring company of CATS (my first big job as an actor), we’d been told Tom Michael Reed, the show’s dance supervisor who had put our company together, had become ill.
No more information than that was offered. We didn’t need it. We knew.
We would see Tom one more time, in the Spring of 1987 in Baltimore, Maryland.
A few months later, while the tour was in Kansas City, the company was called out into the hallway backstage after a performance. We were told Tom had passed.
I remember grabbing my best friend as we burst into tears. My journey to CATS had been a long rollercoaster ride, and Tom had taken a chance on 22-year-old me.
In that moment, I realized how much someone’s belief in me could hold so much gravity.
A few years later, I met an impossibly handsome and talented actor in NYC who, for reasons I could not fully understand, looked at me in a way that made me like myself more.
On what would be our first date, sitting at a diner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he paused and then said, “I have to tell you something – I’m HIV positive.”
I took a breath and somehow, from somewhere in my 20-something body/mind/spirit, replied, “Well, you’ll have to help me with that.”
He smiled. I smiled. And we went on with our date.
Happily, he’s still a very good friend today with whom I know we have our own special connection.
And life went on beyond the barricades.
Each year, I make a point to read a couple of essays by writers much more talented than myself. They share these collections of words that capture a time now in the rearview mirror.
Even when moving forward, it’s important to check in on the past.
Writer Mark King was honored by the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association for a post he originally penned in 2007 about the courage he was forced to summon at a time when folks were holding to the ground as the ground kept shifting.
Here’s just a bit:
There is compassion here, enough for all the world’s deities and saints acting in concert. Infinite compassion for men who lived in fear and checked every spot when they showered for Kaposi sarcoma, and for disowned sons wasting away in the guest room of whoever had the space. But we get older, and friends don’t ask us to hold their hand when they stop breathing, and the fear fades, and I bought new leather loafers and the White Party is coming.
The truth is simply this, and no one will convince me otherwise: My most courageous self, the best man that I’ll ever be, lived more than two decades ago during the first years of a horrific plague.
He worked relentlessly alongside a million others who had no choice but to act. He secretly prayed to survive, even above the lives of others, and his horrible prayer was answered with the death of nearly everyone close to him.
To say I miss that brutal decade would only be partially true. I miss the man I was forced to become, when an entire community abandoned tea dances for town hall meetings, when I learned to offer help to those facing what terrified me most.
Today, the lives of those of us who witnessed the horror have become relatively normal again, perhaps mundane. We prefer it. We have new lives in a world that isn’t choking on disease.
But once, there was a time when we were heroes.
The other piece I’d like you to read is from Joe Jervis of JoeMyGod.
Each year, Joe shares his essay “Membership,” originally written in 2004.
The post chronicles a chapter in his life from 1985 when he and his friends suddenly joined a “new and modern group” of people who were forced to grieve much earlier than they should have.
For more than 30 years now, World AIDS Day has encouraged us to observe and remember. But we also celebrate this place and time when medications keep people alive with fewer and fewer complications.
And, for a huge number of people in treatment, viral loads can become undetectable. And undetectable = untransmittable.
New York City recently reported new diagnoses of HIV have hit a 17-year low. And generic drug manufacturer Cipla has announced a new drug for treating children with HIV, Quadrimune, that can be mixed with milk or sprinkled on baby cereal that has an estimated cost of $1 a day.
Those are good things.
We are still here. Tomorrow will come, the horizon will still loom in the distance, even as we check the rearview mirror out of the corner of our eye.
And, please don’t ever forget to dance. Because we can.
p.s. know your status