A Generation’s Awakening Awareness of HIV/AIDS

By Rob Banaszak on June 9, 2011 in AIDS at 30

This entry is part of a new blog series about the 30th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic in America.  Submissions are invited from all AIDS United stakeholders, including Community Partnerships (and their grantee organizations), grantees, funders, Trustees, staff, advocates, Facebook and Twitter friends and followers, and anyone who has been impacted by HIV/AIDS who reads this blog.  For submission guidelines, email communications@aidsunited.org

by Joe W
Boston, MA

I remember Linda Ellerbee, the anchor for Nick News, addressing an audience of curious tweens. Her tone, frequently upbeat and professorial, was unusually serious and deliberate at the start of this particular episode. As the program began, Ellerbee informed the audience of what was then an epidemic in full swing: HIV/AIDS.

The year was 1992 and I was only seven years old, but I remember this television moment with particular vividness. I can recall her interview with Magic Johnson, and the demonstration of effective condom use that followed. An already neurotic child, I catalogued this experience in the folder of things to worry about. But I knew no one with HIV/AIDS, and at the age of seven, my world consisted of the relative safety of home, school, and friends.

Some time later I remember having a conversation with my mother about the topic. My mother, no doubt preempting a bout of hypochondria on my part, made the disease sound even more remote and removed from my realm of concerns. This was probably easy for her to do, as she did not know anyone with the disease either.

My mother was never shy about educating her children, and she told me that HIV/AIDS was a disease that gay men got. I do not believe – because it is not in my mother’s nature – that this statement was the result of prejudice or bias; at the time, it was a disease that mostly affected gay men. However, to my young ears, the information relayed was converted into, “If you are gay, you will get AIDS.”

My belief that HIV/AIDS was a disease conjured into existence as a result of each same-sex interaction persisted for many years. It was a personally alarming turn of events then when I realized I was gay. At the time, however, HIV/AIDS began to disappear from the public consciousness as a concern warranting immediate attention. This was in the mid to late 1990s, the beginning of the so-called cocktail therapy, and the death and dying that had elicited calls to action just a few years earlier began to subside.

HIV/AIDS soon became just another risk associated with sexual activity, as it was breezed over in health class among the panoply of viral and bacterial consequences drilled into the heads of hormonally-active teenagers. The comfortable isolation afforded by high school health curriculum continued into college, even when I came out to my parents and friends. Among the small group of gay friends I developed, no one had been personally impacted by the disease and it was simply not discussed. I learned that an issue of no personal relevance quickly loses its importance and fades into the background.

It wasn’t until I was twenty-three that I first met someone with HIV. I was introduced to Greg by an acquaintance who informed me of his status prior to our meeting. Being not at all comfortable with the topic, I feigned ignorance when he disclosed his status to me one night over dinner. But I listened with rapt attention as he told me about being diagnosed in the early years of the crisis and not having any idea what came next, or even if he would be alive to experience a next anything.

I learned that his partner at the time also tested positive and passed away several years later. I was shown an address book that he used that contained hundreds of names, the majority of which were crossed out, indicating that the person had died. It’s hard to explain the emotions that this interaction evoked, because there were many, but one of the most prominent was a sense of guilt: I felt guilty for not learning more or doing more to combat this epidemic.

As a gay man, I had devoted little attention to HIV/AIDS because I was in the privileged position of not being affected by the disease while simultaneously living through the earliest years of the epidemic. My age and innocence effectively shielded me from what many painfully endured. Once that changed, the entire spectrum of historical struggles and present concerns became immediate and pressing. I wanted to make up for nearly two decades of my childhood and adolescence and contribute to the fight.

I’m now in a position to do just that, working at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), an incredible nonprofit legal organization based in Boston that is dedicated to ending discrimination on the basis of HIV status, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression. It has been an eye-opening personal journey, and my education continues through my work as the epidemic enters its thirtieth year. And my guilt, that personal reaction to my own years of inaction, has been replaced by a sense of enormous gratitude as Greg, who I am now proud to call my partner, lives every day of his life as a testament to what is possible.

It is my hope that members of my own generation remember those who came before and reignite in themselves that sense of urgency and passion that existed in the earliest years of the epidemic. HIV/AIDS has not gone away; it has just been quietly removed from our sight. The fight is not over but with every passing day it looks more and more winnable.

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