Many are old enough to have known the world before HIV/AIDS. I’m often thankful that I didn’t come out until after I knew about AIDS. Both of those things occurred at about the same time. A time when so many in the LGBT community began talking about a rare type of cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, and we soon had friends who were being diagnosed with it.
It was a scary time because no one knew what was causing it and if and how it was transmitted from one person to another. Early on it was called a “gay disease” because so many gay men were being diagnosed. One thing it did was draw the LGBT community together both in fear and compassion to fight it and to support our friends who were getting sick.
In the early ‘80s and for many years, young men would open the newspaper every morning and look at the obituary column for names they knew. That used to be something only old people did but in those days we all did it. When we found a name it meant crossing out another line in our address books because another friend or acquaintance had died from this scourge. I still have all those old address books so I don’t forget all the friends I lost — the friends I hoped one day to grow old with.
The first close friend I lost was Glen Michael Judd. He was a flamboyant, fun-loving soul who lived life to the fullest, only to find it a very short life. He was one of the first people I came out to and when he asked if he could come visit me in my office for lunch I suggested we meet at the restaurant. He guessed right away I was embarrassed to have him come to the office because some there may think I was gay. He not only forgave me but ended up teaching me so much about people and accepting them for who they are. He died a slow and painful death with every ailment one could have imagined, including going blind. Yet in one way he was lucky. He had a loving family who held him in their arms until the very end. Other friends weren’t so fortunate and many died without their families around. They relied on friends and the families we became for each other. I often think of all those who died much too young including Michael Sawyer, Bob Federici, Paul Ludeman, Alan Milsap, Mitch Foushee and Steven Fine to name just a few.
The LGBT community fought against the bigotry surrounding AIDS and became more united because of it. We raised money and formed organizations like ACT UP and Whitman-Walker Clinic to speak out and care for each other. We marched and spoke out conducting candlelight vigils at the Lincoln Memorial and actions like Hands-Around-the White House. We supported the making of the AIDS Quilt and cried together the first time it was laid out on the National Mall so that everyone could see the devastation this disease had caused to individuals, families and society. We had heroes like Elizabeth Taylor who first forced Ronald Reagan to speak the word AIDS and Bob Hattoy who spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 1992 and became the face of AIDS in the Clinton administration. We rallied around Ryan White when he was kept from going to school and began AIDS Walks and AIDS Rides across the nation to raise money for research, education and care.
As more than 20,000 people descend on Washington, D.C., this week to participate in the first International AIDS Conference to be held in the United States in 20 years, we must look back from where we came and forward to the day that AIDS is eradicated in the world. We know the devastation it has caused and still causes. We know that it is epidemic in the District of Columbia. We know that we have drugs that can help people with HIV/AIDS but are still fighting to get enough funding so that everyone can benefit from them. We also know that even when people can afford the drugs, AIDS can have a drastic impact on their life and that of their families. In some instances the drugs just don’t work.
Today many consider AIDS a chronic disease that can be managed if diagnosed at an early stage so we work to have people get tested and into care. We know how AIDS is transmitted and educate our young people on how to avoid it. And yet with all this people around the world are still getting HIV/AIDS. While it is not always the death sentence it was 30 years ago, we still have a long way to go and my hope is that I will be around to see it eradicated completely.