|Today is World AIDS Day|
I guess you could say I've been writing this piece for nearly 23 years now. That's how long its been since I lost a friend to AIDS.
His name was Craig. He was a beautiful and charming young man, funny and quick witted, the sort of person you feel privileged to know and even more privileged to be considered their friend. We studied theatre together in college where he was a writer and actor of much promise.
He was also a hemophiliac who contracted AIDS from contaminated blood clotting agents.
Its hard now to look back at the AIDS hysteria of the late 80's. Persons with AIDS were fired from jobs,expelled from or refused admission to schools, run out of neighborhoods, banished from social circles. Since most sexual transmission cases in the early days involved gay men, frequently acknowledging AIDS status also meant coming out of the closet. Gay people had very little legal protection in those days either. Sometimes gay people were discriminated against just because they were potential AIDS carriers.
Being a theatre major, I was isolated from much of this discrimination in college. AIDS created huge holes in the performing arts community, so we were both more aware and more compassionate than the average person in 1988. When I went to work after college, it was a whole different story. One of the biggest shocks was the double standard of compassion many had towards AIDS victims. Persons who contracted AIDS through blood transfusions, or organ transplants, or babies who had contracted AIDS in utero were "Innocent Victims of AIDS" (surely one of the most absurd phrases ever devised). People who contracted AIDS through sexual activity or needle sharing had made "Irresponsible lifestyle choices". Frequently AIDS was spoken of as "God's judgement" on such persons.
That is when AIDS was spoken of at all. Its probably hard to believe now how much a major health issue was totally ignored in the 80's by the people at the top of the government.
Ronald Reagan was president from 1981-1989. The first cases of AIDS were discovered in the early 80's but the President and much of is administration totally ignored the issue. Reagan never mentioned the word AIDS in public until 1987. If you knew someone who had AIDS you didn't talk about it to anyone else because you didn't know who else knew and who it might get back to. When people died of AIDS it was never mentioned in their obituaries or in conversation at their funerals.
(If you want a good view of what it was like in those days watch the movie Longtime Companions. I watched it once and have never been able to watch it again, it was so gut wrenching and emotionally real.)
When Craig died I decided I would talk about what he died from and why. One of the problems I saw in the people around me is that they dismissed AIDS because they didn't know anyone who had it (or at least anyone they knew had it). There was also that tendency to think of it only as a gay problem, not one for "ordinary" people to deal with. (A lot of them didn't think they knew anyone who was gay either.) So I talked about it. That I had a friend who died from AIDS. One of the stupidest most ignorant things I have ever heard still sticks in my head from that time. I told someone I had lost a friend to AIDS and they asked "How did he get it?" Since I saw it as part of the mission to get people to realize that AIDS was a problem for everyone, I told them. When the woman heard that he was a hemophiliac her response was, "That's OK then". It was apparently OK for young people to die as long as they didn't get this horrible disease from sex or doing drugs. Its hard to believe but its true.
After Craig died a group of us got together and made a panel for the AIDS Quilt. I contributed a swatch of material from my wedding dress. He had been so happy to see us get married, and it was one of the last time a lot of our friends were all together. We supported fundraisers and other events.
When our son was born, 5 years later we gave him Craig as a middle name. We have always told him why. I hope by the time his kids are old enough to ask it will be no bigger a deal than for me to learn that a grandparent was named after someone who died from polio.
I do know the experience radicalized me. It wasn't just Craig's death, it was the fallout from all the ignorance and lack of compassion. How many people died because the victims were stigmatized,because they didn't want to admit to risky behavior, because the governments all over the world dragged their feet on assisting persons who couldn't afford medication, or because they were too squeamish to advocate safe sex?
On this World AIDS day there is actually much good news.(see.http://www.un.org/en/events/aidsday/.) New cases are declining in much of the world. Medical therapies have improved, people who are properly treated are often asymptomatic, and more people are getting that treatment. But the single most important weapon is to talk. Talk about the disease. Talk about safe sex. Talk about getting help.
This is my friend, Craig. Knowing him was one of the privileges of my life. I miss him every day, as does his family and many other friends. For him and his family, and for all the victims and their families, speak up. Its the least we can do.
For more info about World AIDS day and things that you can do see here: http://www.worldaidsday.org/