The gay community appears to have forgotten why World AIDS Day exists. That is not necessarily an indictment, but it is an observation that disturbs me deeply enough to want to figure out why. World AIDS day was observed in the US for the 25th time on December 1st, 2013 with very little observing that anybody noticed. That cannot be allowed to happen. Those of us who do remember, must remember.
This is the year where actual cures and not just treatments, are being tested on people. The very words sound unreal to those of us who were coming of age at a time where we in the gay community knew why we were observing a World AIDS Day. In a time where my own small group of friends, there at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, did not go a single day for months on end without hearing about one of our friends or acquaintances who had passed away, or was about to. We could all cook, because we were all poor, but we all had someone who needed meals brought to them. We all had a suit for funerals, because we all had funerals to go to.
We were unable to forget what the stakes were and how important the struggle was. The stakes have not changed. The struggle is no less important. The missing piece is that today, forgetting has become easier. So much easier, in fact, that most of the gay community appears to have forgotten why World AIDS Day exists. Those of us who do remember, though, have the ability to prevent the appearance of forgetting from becoming a reality.
When World AIDS Day started, 25 years ago, I was 18 years old and in what should have been the prime of my sex life. Sadly, for me, it was right around the time that HIV burst onto the scene in terms of public recognition of the epidemic. Sex got complicated right before I got to start having much of any. That probably saved my life, but the point is that no matter what hormones were raging through my body at the time, I had daily, if not hourly, reminders of the benefits of caution. Those daily reminders all had names back then, and a whole lot of them were my close friends.
There is a quilt that travels around the country that carries many of their names on it. It is a beautiful and terrible thing all at the same time. Back then we made bus trips to wherever it was going to pass closest to where we were. It was an excruciating thing to do, but we could do nothing else because it made us remember. Nobody wanted to be forgotten, and we were all in danger, so we promised each other we would not forget. Back then remembering was not an option. Somehow, we have allowed it to become an option these days. I don’t know how we allowed that to happen. I don’t know how I allowed that to happen; how I came close to breaking that promise.
I do know that I don’t want to return to those days, but neither do I want to say that there was nothing good about them. Remembering means remembering the good and the bad. There was lots of good. There were bohemian poetry nights and Rocky Horror shows at midnight twice a week. There was dancing. There was a lot of dancing and there was Madonna. Actually, I think the gay community still has dibs on her today. That’s comforting to me. Don’t judge.
I remember going to the anonymous clinic every six months to get tested, even though I hadn’t had sex without latex since high school, just because. I remember that we always went alone, because we could not bear to see a friend receive the news for the first time, or for them to see us receive it. Still we went, and kept going. We understood the stakes. Our community was one that was at risk, but above all we were a community.
We were a community under attack by misinformation and deliberate malevolence, but we fought to claw our way out of the fringes of society and dared to demand that we be allowed to take our place as a part of it. We realized that the only weapon we had that could make any difference at all to our struggle was education. We educated ourselves and we made a commitment to educate every person we could safely educate.
We tried to educate where it was not safe, as well. We could do nothing else. If we wanted to push back and tell them that this was, indeed, not a “gay” disease, then we needed to have the facts to back that up. We, as an entire community, embraced that as a mission. We embraced it when it was difficult, or dangerous, or even dull.
We had a vision of a world where we would be able to come out at work without being fired from our jobs. We dreamed of being able to tell our landlord we were not “just roommates,” without being evicted. We dared to hope for a day that we could leave the bar as a couple without worrying about bottles flying at our heads as we walked home past the straight bar two doors down. We even had the foolish hope that one day we would be able to get married.
We fought for education, and for funding for that education. We watched the government. We watched them closely, and knew exactly how much funding for AIDS research was being cut from the federal budget each year. We knew, and we called them on it. We were loud and abrasive and a pain in the collective rear end of everyone who had the gall to suggest that we didn’t need increased funding for research on a “gay” disease. We went armed with the education that had become the hallmark of our community, and we fought for that impossible future.
The problem may be that we feel like we achieved it. We passed the anti-discrimination legislation enumerating sexual orientation as a protected category. We got the right to work and live and “Vogue” wherever the heck we wanted. We saw politicians start to talk about the issue in press rooms instead of back rooms. We saw some of those politicians actually come out, and still keep their jobs and constituencies. We saw so much of what we dreamed of happening that we started to feel like we could let our guards down.
Budget cuts this year will cause the National Institutes of Health to lose more than $229 billion for AIDS research for next year. When did we stop making a big deal about that funding being cut? Why are the people who are trying to make a big deal out of it not getting more help? When did we start to believe the lie that AIDS has become nothing more than a chronic condition to be managed instead of a serious threat to our community, and every community, that needs to be stopped at all costs? Did we? Maybe we didn’t, but we certainly forgot our promise not to forget.
It is time to remember again. It is time to “Remember Stonewall” and that spirit of defiance in the face of injustice that propelled us forward. It is time to remember what it felt like to be an actual gay community, rather than have those words turned into some ephemeral concept used in speeches to describe a set of potential voters. It is time to say that the need for education is not over, nor will it ever be over until this disease is beaten and done. It is time to remember, so we can share what we went through to get where we are. We have a cultural history that needs to be passed on. Oh, yeah, and we have Madonna.
The gay community appears to have forgotten why World AIDS Day exists, but it only appears that way.
A personal commentary by Jim Malone