I was a preteen when I first heard of AIDS. By this time I had already accumulated enough “evidence” to support the theory that “faggots” were the absolute scum of the earth whom were far removed from my plebian project surroundings and I could never be one. I remember when AIDS first hit my world view; it was a moral dilemma more so than a medical one. The news wasn’t that people were mysteriously dying but that gay men were mysteriously dying and the mystery that surrounded their death in my neighborhood was automatically tethered to those guys’ sexual proclivities.
Over twenty years has passed since Gaëtan Dugas was controversially found to be Patient Zero, the initial patient who was vilified as a “mass spreader” of HIV and the original source of the HIV epidemic among gay men. But even after all of the medical information that has been gathered, investigated and tested to explain HIV, and there are now tangible medical treatment options available, its umbilical cord is still very much attached to this womb of judgment, fear and derision.
Stepping back and looking at the whole picture, it is quite disarming to realize the universal disdain the world at large still has for the HIV+. Growing up I remember the newscasts of men who were critically injured in car crashes and the emergency medical units refusing to even touch them out of fear of contracting the disease and immediately dissolving into dust on contact. I remember the kids joking about which one of us had AIDS as if it were cooties or lice. I remember when Ryan White was shunned by his friends and expelled from school once it was discovered he had acquired the disease through a blood transfusion.
But this was the 80’s, Regan was in office, I had a carefree curl, The Color Purple lost all eleven nominations at the Oscars, LaToya Jackson released six albums… it was just a fucked up time for everybody. Though we could have predicted the pandemic that it has become, no one truly believed that it would actually get this far; and we most certainly didn’t have the spiritual accoutrements to deal with watching dozens of our closest friends, family and associates wither and die right before our eyes. Not in the 80’s, not when there was so much money to be made, legal or otherwise, and so many luxuries that could be bought. It was much easier to contain the disease within a group of people who have been so universally maligned anyway.
Well, it’s 2008; America has a real possibility of having our first Black president, Whoopi Goldberg went on to win two Oscars, Oprah Winfrey is one of the most powerful people in the world and I got cornrows now… things are looking up. Though not perfectly, Latoya released four more albums and people still look at HIV/AIDS as a moral judgment, a spiritual condemnation… a gay disease.
I recently watched “Coming Out Stories” on the Logo Network. Each show focuses on a “closet homosexual” and his/her journey to tell their closest family members that they are indeed gay. The premise of it to me always seemed really mundane to me, mainly because my own coming out story was about ten seconds.”
“Mama, you totally know I’m gay right.”
“You got any questions?”
“Yeah, when are you going to clean your fucking room?”
But there were parts of certain episodes that I found truly endearing. However, I think in 2008, there is a second coming out that happens; when you tell your friends and family that you are HIV+. It’s a tremendous task, I would think even more so than telling people that you’re gay. As socially elevated and intellectual that we as a society would like to think that we are, we still hold on to that judgment of people who are HIV+. We still believe that they are less than, or less worthy or as a friend once told me, “damaged.”
Not too long ago I had a candid discussion with a group of friends about our collective sexual practices. One of my friends said that he doesn’t use a condom with one night stands all the time because he can usually tell if the person is HIV+ or not. I asked him to explain. He basically told me that people who are HIV+ look drawn in and emaciated, don’t really smile and you can kind of smell of them.
There’s a tone that exists between a primal scream and an atomic bomb exploding… that’s the sound you’re hearing right now… it came from me weeks ago when I screamed at the top of my lungs at him.
And the sad fact of the matter is that he’s not alone in that assumption. Despite the fact an estimated 33.2 million people are living with AIDS, surprisingly enough, there is a quantifiable number of people whose inner circle has not (yet) been effected by the disease and who get their notions about carriers of the disease from some bullshit “The Birth of a Nation”-esuqe film or television show where the only Black people are the main character’s best friend and anyone who happens to be physically ill is a balding drag queen with a lisp.
Those misjudgments are still out there, strong and proud. I remember when the brief rumor got out that Madonna had contracted AIDS, she went on the warpath defending herself saying in effect, “If I had AIDS, I would be more terrified at the judgments people would have against me than the disease itself.” It’s totally understandable. God forbid but if Lil’ Kim or Jenna Jameson by chance would contract breast cancer, I imagine this country would rally around their efforts for recovery despite their highly sexual histories. But if Lil’ Kim or Jenna Jameson by chance would contract HIV, I imagine this country would denigrate them as morality tales about the evils of sexual promiscuity to spite their highly sexual histories… as if they deserved the disease. No one deserves HIV more so than anybody deserves cancer, or lupus or sickle cell anemia (or Latoya Jackson’s eleventh album whose release date has been thankfully pushed back again).
Recently a friend of mine disclosed to me that he just received the news that he was HIV+. I do have to say that in my own personal inner circle no one has had their second “coming out” in quite some time. Emotion-wise, there is some overlap between the two events; there is a cathartic metamorphosis that takes place where everything you were before the conversation has a different glimmer to it after the conversation, your true family and friends stick by you and support you, and despite their support, you know in your heart of hearts that they are going to miss the person you were before you had the conversation because honestly… you do too.
I don’t think a cake or a party would be appropriate though with the second coming out. I don’t think it should be this dire funeral-like atmosphere but I also don’t think a Hallmark “Just-For-Laughs” card is appropriate either. With my friend’s second coming out, unfortunately, I broke down. It’s something I don’t suggest you do if someone confides their status to you but this cut threw me like a knife. It was around the anniversary of my husband’s death and also around the time where I had some post-coital worries from a recent tryst where I was just lucky enough to find a condom that exists in the 1% failure rate in the middle of intercourse… so… I was a little on edge and it was on my mind. But I eventually pulled it together and tried my best to be a rock for my friend.
Honestly speaking there was a time where a part of me believed that I was ahead of the game because I am HIV- but the truth of the matter is… it’s really fucking irrelevant in the big scheme of things. When I think about my husband, his diagnosis, his life and his death… I don’t feel… privileged. I feel sad, and angry and really pissed… because he’s not here… and my own existence is only a small consolation to help ease that pain. Sometimes, usually I after stop crying, I don’t see that line that separates the HIV+ from the HIV-… it’s all the same; we’re all in this together, and if some of us are in pain then all of us are in pain. I realized while holding my friend when they disclosed their status to me and the both of us were blubbering like two kids being sent to an orphanage that neither one of us was going to leave this moment unscathed; this… was going to hurt.
But we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off and did what two true friends always do when one comes out (about anything) to the other… we had dinner and drinks and tried to figure out how this new information was it going to affect their love life, sex life and hairdo.
When my husband passed away I remember my mom steadfastly insisted I get counseling afterwards which I never did. In fact it was suggested that I join some HIV- support group beforehand and I never agreed to that either. However, for some reason nowadays I don’t think it would be such a bad idea to run some of my thoughts past a professional. I would be interested to know what they felt about my thoughts of people “coming out for a second time.” I still don’t think Hallmark should make a card for the occasion but I was thinking of a card that said on the front, “I heard about your diagnosis…” and in the inside it said “… dude, it totally fucking sucks. Let’ go get drunk.” Not the most uplifting of sentiments but I think it’s quite inspirational and honest.
And yeah… I’m getting professional help.