I remember the first time I heard the word “AIDS”. It was in health class back in high school a mere five years after AIDS officially reared its ugly head. To say there was some misinformation involved is a small understatement. Not much has changed in the 29 years since AIDS first became a recognized health hazard for humanity. I wish that was not the case, but it is. Today, regardless of red ribbons and ad campaigns, there are many folks who still consider AIDS to be a problem for “other people” or for “people who deserve it.”
And yet, it is a specter waiting for nearly all of us, at any time. That’s right. You, me. The sexually active, the chaste. If you live and breathe, you are at risk. Granted, some folks are at very little risk, but we are all at risk. And no matter who you are, as a collective species, we are at risk. For as soon as a person can consider a terrible health concern justifiable for some populations, we as a species have lost something. Our humanity.
When I was twenty, I spent the year living in the United Kingdom. Within moments of landing at Heathrow airport, I immediately knew that while I was going to call a very similar place home for a year, it was as foreign of a foreign country as any. Many practices and social norms were so different than what I was used to back home. One that jumped out at me was the attitude about AIDS and HIV.
Most of my fellow classmates at Trinity (Carmarthen, Wales) were blissfully unaware of AIDS being a threat to them. More than once I heard statements to the effect that since he/she wasn’t having sex with a gay man, he/she didn’t need to worry about catching AIDS. My cautions about protected sex were thrown away with “don’t worry, I’m on the pill”.
And therein lies much of the problem for the average person. Safe sex is not only used to prevent pregnancy. And just because you aren’t having gay sex, you still need to be using a condom, unless you are in a monogamous and negative-AIDS tested relationship. Add into the equation thoughts about AIDS protection via sex with virgins, the idea of “just this once” and many more fallacies and there is no wonder that today, over 33 million people are living with AIDS every day.
That’s more than the populations of most US cities.
That’s nearly 22 million more than who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
If we don’t start worrying about our neighbor, the day will come before too long that we have no more neighbors left. And, of course, that is the point of just how far we’ve come in 29 years of living with AIDS. Not far enough. Because as long as one person has AIDS and their suffering and needless death makes no difference to others, we are doomed.
By the spring of 1990, I was living in London and taking a theater class. One of the plays I was able to see has stayed with me all these years. It was written, produced, directed and starred in by a gay man. (If anyone knows the name of the play, please help me out here.) At the play’s start, many theater goers were a bit shocked to see a man on stage in stiletto heels, a pink boa, and nothing else. But as his voice drew us into the tale of a man who daily is hated for his sexual orientation and who must walk home past a grafitti-strewn wall proclaiming AIDS to be God’s solution for gays, I forgot all about seeing a man’s flesh. Instead, I saw his vulnerability. Which was his point, of course.
33 million people are vulnerable in ways the healthy cannot begin to understand.
The pain and suffering of AIDS is much like cancer and other horrific illnesses. But it has a stigma that other diseases do not.
33 million people are blamed for having a disease — and that is precisely how far we’ve come in 29 years.