Today is World AIDS Day. I remember first learning about AIDS in the late 1980’s. Finding treatment and a cure for AIDS was a cause important to me then, and it is still important today. Here’s my experience with how AIDS has affected me:
When I was a kid, I had an unusually large and incredibly awesome village that helped raise me. My widowed mom was involved in the local theater; and as one does in that community, I came to know and form friendships with a few men that are gay. I knew about gay people way before I knew about Ryan White and others like him (basically anybody who got AIDS without having gay sex).
I also knew that AIDS was something you got if you were a gay and had sex. I knew that if you got it you were pretty much dead within a year or two at most. I was scared because I didn’t want my friends to get sick or die; and I was scared because the culture of that time said that these people deserved what was happening to them. That they deserved all the pain and suffering they were getting because they were “unnatural” or “perverts”.
These men were shunned by their families, friends, and colleagues. They were kicked out of their homes, disowned, disavowed, physically abused, sexually harassed, lost their jobs – some were even killed by total strangers. Some were killed by a loved one. Others died by their own hands out of shame. The world just watched as their bodies grew weaker. They were ravaged by AIDS and left to die alone in their suffering. I still grow physically ill when I think of the possibility (and actuality) that there can be so much hatred and fear of one group; that they are somehow deemed SO morally abhorrent, that we will deprive them of basic human care and dignity.
It disgusted me to think of how these gay men were treated so I got involved the only way I knew how – I volunteered at the Utah AIDS Foundation. It was the first time I ever volunteered anywhere other than church! I was newly licensed to drive and still figuring out how to get from one point to another on a map. There I received training and education about the virus. I learned how to take precautions against accidental infection and how best to give care to those we served. I participated in the Annual Utah AIDS Walk for awareness and volunteered at the Awards Night at the Oscars fundraiser. I was able to attend and help with a viewing of the Memorial Quilt that is preserved and presented by The NAMES Project Foundation. It was one of the most moving experiences of my young adult life. All those names… those people… gone. It was devastating and crushed my young, tender heart.
Today is about awareness. In the US, AIDS doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore. Only 0.00375% of Americans live with the HIV infection. Practically nothing! But globally there are an estimated 34 million people who have the virus. Despite having only being identified in 1984, more than 35 million people have died of HIV or AIDS, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.
We are all bumbling along on this planet. Each of us hurtling forward through life with all of its ups and downs. It’s not a contest to see who suffers or hurts the most, and it’s not important who ends up at the top. What matters is that we all get there.