While the coronavirus has hogged the spotlight for nearly three years, World AIDS Day is still recognized every year on December 1. Because it’s important to remember this 40-year health threat is still with us.
Founded in 1988, World AIDS Day was the first ever global health day.
One day, when HIV has been eradicated, 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.
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.
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 an excerpt:
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 recommend 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, World AIDS Day has encouraged us to observe and remember, but also to take action.
Today, on World AIDS Day, the Biden-Harris Administration remembers those who have lost their lives to AIDS and recommits to providing support, dignity, and compassion to people with HIV. https://t.co/ItXieErbHY
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) December 1, 2022
In his 2021 World AIDS Day proclamation, President Biden wrote that “we are within striking distance of eliminating HIV transmission worldwide.”
Thanks to the incredible dedication of scientists, activists, health care workers, caregivers, and so many others, we have made enormous progress preventing, detecting, and treating HIV; reducing case counts and AIDS-related deaths; and freeing millions of people to enjoy long, healthy lives.
Still, not everyone has equal access to that care. And for the more than 38 million people around the world now living with HIV — especially members of the LGBTQI+ community, communities of color, women, and girls — a diagnosis is still life-altering. We can do better.
We also celebrate this place and time when medications keep people alive with fewer and fewer complications. For a huge number of people in treatment, viral loads can become undetectable. And undetectable = untransmittable.
And thanks to the success of COVID-19 vaccines using mRNA technology, pharma-giant Moderna announced last year that it would launch a Phase 1 clinical trial for two new mRNA-based HIV vaccines, giving scientists fresh hope.
We are still here. Tomorrow will come, the horizon will continue to loom in the distance, even as we check the rearview mirror out of the corner of our eye.
p.s. know your status