On the 30th anniversary of AIDS touching my life, I wanted to share my story in the hope you also may be willing to share your story about AIDS. All of our stories make up the history of AIDS, and these need to be documented and preserved for future generations. Listen up young people – and never, ever forget. This is part one.
1984 (Dallas): By 1984, AIDS had been running rampant throughout the United States for more than five years, although still silent and unchecked. It was the year a poll of Americans showed 72 percent wanted mandatory testing of everyone, 51 percent favored quarantining anyone with AIDS, and 15 percent believed anyone who is HIV positive should be tattooed with the word AIDS.
No one knew for sure how AIDS was transmitted or whether condoms offered protection against the disease. Every day, more people were dying from AIDS – gay, straight, men, women, children, black, white, Latino (human beings!) – yet no drugs or treatments were available.
In fact, the first AIDS drug, AZT, wasn’t approved until a year later. The cost for a year’s supply was $10,000 making it the most expensive drug in human history.
I was 22 years old in 1984 and living in Dallas when I came out as a gay man. Until then, I hoped no one would find out I was gay. I also hoped I would not get AIDS. That was the year I met my first love – and had my first heartbreak.
It was the winter of 1988 when I moved to Los Angeles. I was 24 and had decided it was time for me to live a full life of a newly out young gay man. The AIDS epidemic continued to spread, devastating our community. Already we had lost an entire generation of leaders, mentors, family and friends. It is also during this time that a new generation of young people began to move to Los Angeles, New York City and Miami.
Our older generation of gay men was telling us it was wrong to have a good time, to go dancing, partying. How, they asked, could we have fun and enjoy ourselves when our gay brothers, perhaps including those close to us, were sick and dying from AIDS?
Collectively, I and my young gay friends rejected that view of life. We refused to focus on only sickness and death – AIDS. If you listen to the dance music between 1988 and 1993, it is soulful, upbeat, about lifting yourself up. For us, it was like going to church. It also was about learning to love ourselves.
I remember one early morning, following an evening of dancing, stopping by a 24-hour diner. An older gay gentleman (about my age now) I knew from the gym took me aside. In tears, he told me it was wrong for me and my friends to go out dancing, partying, enjoying ourselves, as we were being disrespectful to those who had died from AIDS or were living with the disease.
A year later I saw him across a dance floor, late at night, dancing all by himself. He was wearing sunglasses and didn’t seem to fit in. Yet he was dancing hard, pounding his feet on the ground, dancing in circles, waving his arms and hands in the air. People spread out and made room for him.
I recognized him. I went over to him, slowly, thinking he would not remember me from our heated conversation a year earlier. I extended my arms and wrapped him in a strong embrace. “Welcome,” I whispered in his ear, “we are so glad you are here. We all are.”
He took off his sunglasses and, with tears rolling down his face, cried out, “Why me? Why me? Why am I still alive?” Survival guilt. Death and dying. AIDS. Hope.
No more lost souls, we prayed, but until then, we knew we had to rely on our inner strength. We still mourned and cried and screamed, but we also danced as if there were no tomorrow. We were alive, so we were determine to live. Together we continued to move forward.