For many people born around the same time as me (1980, for the record) their first exposure to someone with HIV/AIDS was Pedro Zamora on The Real World San Francisco. Or, in a fictional setting, it was Tom Hanks’ character in Philadelphia.
I actually knew two people who died of AIDS by the time I was 9. My mother judged dance competitions in the spring and summer and I often went with her. When I was 8 I first learned what it meant to be gay when my mom had to explain to me that she could never marry one of the other teachers/judges because he loved other men. It was no big deal to me– I just wished some of those wonderful men could have helped raise me! But then some of them started getting sick. I remember being scared (for them, and yes, for myself). This was especially true when one had Kaposi’s sarcoma. At that time in my life nothing was scarier than seeing those purplish spots and knowing they were a death sentence.
On this World’s AIDS Day so much has changed. People live with HIV (thank goodness), and more rarely die from AIDS. And yet things remain the same, as rates of infection have increased among gay men who no longer view AIDS as a threat. Truvada is progress, but not the whole answer.
Which is why HBO’s The Normal Heart is so important, not to mention powerful. The Normal Heart shows what it was like to be living in NYC in the 80s and fear the unknown (“gay cancer,” people dying essentially on planes). But it also shows that love and relationships always, always endure. As a mom it is even more difficult for me to watch programs like this, filled with so much loss, but it is also vital for me to bear witness in some small way so I can remember and teach my sons that silence is always wrong.
[On a shallow note, and especially if you love pop culture, you will appreciate the various actors in The Normal Heart. TIM RIGGINS, folks from Glee and Law & Order, just to name a few.]
As the world confronts the Ebola epidemic we should remember that fear is not the answer. Knowledge is. ACT UP, speak out against injustice, learn from the past.
This is what I will tell my boys on this World AIDS Day, and hopefully every day.