When I was 12 I sat, a couple hundred miles from San Francisco while a minister preached a sermon on AIDS. It was a sign on the end times; God sending a plague to wipe away the wicked. But the “righteous” needed to take precautions: it could be caught from a whirlpool, or a public toilet seat. “We all know how homosexuals pollute public toilets” (I didn’t and still don’t but this sermon gave me a terror of public toilets for years). “It is a scientific fact that the sneeze of a gay man can infect you with AIDS.” I did not know any out gays or lesbians. But like tens of millions of North Americans I learned that there was a disease striking gays, and they were dying in agony, and they deserved it.
Two of the documentaries I’ve watched recently were Common Threads, tales from the AIDS quilt and Absolutely Positive, the documentary from the 80’s interviewing different people with AIDS. Today, AIDS is big business, worth billions of dollars annually; so much that a cure would dramatically effect the US GDP. Meanwhile AIDS ceremonies & focus, even in the west, have moved toward the “friendlier” face of aids, with no pictures of prostitutes (used for human trials in Asia), junkies (up to an estimated 1 million infections due to drug use in Russia) or gay men (despite recent upswing in resistant strains in the US) but children and single mothers. At the capital’s official World’s AIDS/HIV service I attended last year, there was not one gay male speaker, not one mention of gay men. I think that is a mistake.
If there is one incident which has tested and exposed Christian faith, it is AIDS. For most Christians this was the “Samaritan on the Road” and most Christians failed. HIV/AIDS showed, not the depravity attributed to gays, but their divinity. The organizer of the AIDS Quilt said that in 1982 he realized that 1,000 gay men had died within six blocks of where he stood. The Surgeon General of the US said it wasn’t an issue. The president wouldn’t talk about it. Centre of Disease Control would not treat with equal seriousness. And gay men and supporters were marching, not firebombing, to town halls and health department to remind that they and their friends were dying. There was fear and desperation, yes. People were trying bee pollen and the colour blue, crystals and mind control. But people, specifically gay men were organizing, were speaking up, making books, films, movies. “You will not forget us,” they said in a thousand ways, “You will not shut us up.” Classic films on AIDS like “An Early Frost”, “No Sad Songs”, “A Hero of my own life” and “Too Little, Too Late” came out BEFORE the president would even publicly speak about AIDS.
AIDS is about hemophiliac children having to be removed from school from their own safety. In Common Threads, a seven year old hemophiliac in 1982 asks, “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” He was dead at 11. In Canada in the mid to late 80’s, plasma from US prisons, already declared too dangerous for sale in the US, was sold and used by the Canadian Red Cross. If you were a hemophiliac in the early 80’s, you got HIV, and likely you died.
To remember AIDS without the sacrifice of these groups is wrong. Gay men died so doctors could figure out that diseases never seen in humans before were killing them. Gay men died on drug trials that didn’t work, that somewhat worked, that killed them faster. One patient heard, “Your T count is 40. People with 40 T-cell count are dead.” Now we know better. People with HIV got together and made their own education pamplets, started their own organizations, started their own safe-sex lectures. Virtually EVERYTHING we use now in the fight against AIDS was done started, tried, experimented by a group of people; despised and abandoned by society. It took 13 years before Tom Hanks would win an Oscar for his portrayal of a group of men who were, for the most part, already dead.
The President never apologized, the Congress and the Surgeon General never apologized, and certainly the churches and leaders never apologized. I do. I am sorry that in my youth and ignorance I believed hate instead of love. I wrote a paper for my bible class on shipping all the gays of San Francisco to an AIDS island like a leper colony. I got an A. I’m sorry.
It’s important, as we now move into the generation born after HIV/AIDS that we remember those who more often than not died unheralded, sometimes abandoned by family, who at times were too ashamed of their sons to even tell people how they died. They were the ones who helped us understand not only what AIDS is, but how to still see the person standing behind the disease. We owe so much to them.
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