We just commemorated World AIDS Day, in the middle of a new pandemic. For those who have survived, and will continue to live strong, it is a good moment to look at what we have learned, and what we can offer a confused world around us.
This month, on my podcast RATED LGBT RADIO, I sat down with Mark S. King, the popular and award-winning blogger of “My Fabulous Disease.” A long-term HIV survivor, King has made a career of being a voice for his fellow HIV-positive community members. He shared thoughts on our current health crisis.
“As bad as it is, and certainly, we have not had this level of bat-shit crazy before, that’s true, but it is also true that people like me know this is not our first pandemic. It is also not our first president ignoring it,” King said.
AIDS was first brought up to President Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes during a White House press conference in 1982. Speakes made a joke about the disease. According to Caitlin Gibson of the Washington Post: “At subsequent press conferences in 1983 and 1984, Speakes — and the White House press corps —continue to respond to the increasingly urgent questions about AIDS with a mix of laughter, homophobic jokes and general indifference.”
A journalist who was in the room at the time, shared, “I was young, deeply closeted and horrified. You cannot imagine my reaction to that display of callousness.”
On Sept. 17, 1985, Reagan finally mentioned the disease in the context of answering a question from the press. By comparison, Reagan’s silence makes Trump’s seem like a mere blip.
Another difference with the COVID-19 pandemic is that it brings a widespread shared experience. There are fights, resistance, and subversive behaviors, but through all that, there is a broad commonality. You can say to virtually anyone “it is hard because of COVID” and you will get head nods in sympathy and agreement. That was not the case with AIDS. For many it was a pandemic in the gay ghettos and social circles, and life “as normal” everywhere else. Sharing that it had even touched your life brought shame.
“COVID is different. HIV is the scuzzy, sexual, drug shooting cousin to it,” King pointed out.
“We had to establish our value in the public square,” King observed of the AIDS crisis response versus COVID-19. “It was not the value of killing your grandmother in her nursing home.
“We had a much harder road to hoe. It is similar in that masks are the new condoms. Some people just will not… when the threat is invisible, it is hard to get them to take it seriously. This is still about privilege. It was then, and is now, that this is about who has access to healthcare and information, and who does not.”
He acknowledges that many young LGBTQ folks do not feel the impact of the AIDS crisis or understand the weight of the experience it afforded. He also recognizes that there has been an in-community stigma that does not have a parallel in the COVID pandemic experience.
“We love to separate ourselves from ‘the other,’ it is human nature. Then we stigmatize them because it is an easy, lazy way, to feel better about ourselves. A hierarchy was created when it came to HIV—and top of the heap were those who were HIV negative,” he said.
“The fortunate, the lucky. At the bottom were long-term survivors—the ones with the “scars,” facial wasting, body disfigurement. Many gay men find it hard to face and they wish it would just go die already. For too many gay men… they are young and frivolous, and I get that—and used to be them myself—I am not blaming them. To them, we represent a war they would rather forget,” he added then continued: “I try to be philosophical about these things, and I am more philosophical now than I used to be. I am not one of these people who bag on the young people today — ‘they don’t care! They don’t know history’ I have to be careful of what I call ‘bludgeoning young gay men with my AIDS tragedy’ – we all have our stuff. Every generation, every group. I survived AIDS in the 80s, and I survived years and years before there was a single pill I could take.
“But there are people listening to RATED LGBT Radio that have been just as bad—likely worse. If I don’t take my grief and my trauma – my hope and my skills, my gratitude, and use those, to help someone else, to better someone else, then what the hell did we go through all that for?”
Many activists worked extremely hard to get to this place—a place where young people could live their lives free from the fear and dread of their sexuality and tying it to a terrifying and deadly threat. So, to activists like King, that possibly “laisse faire attitude” is not a waste, it is a success.
That success will parlay into an event on Dec. 16, streaming on Facebook and YouTube, for King, and all others who outran “the Plague.” King is now 60 years old and embracing it with flourish. “With all that is going on in the world celebrating long life with HIV is an act of grace, science, and belief, and hope — so I’m thrilled,” he stated.
The proceeds from the party will benefit The Reunion Project, a network of HIV survivors. Sir Elton John, his husband David Furnish as well as Greg Louganis are some of the many celebrities who will appear. (To attend, go to Markis60.com)
“It will be silly. It will be celebratory. We have left many friends behind, but that does not minimize the frivolous fun we will have. It has been quite a year to be sure. It has been quite a life. Who knew we would make it this far?”
King summed up his outlook. “Ultimately, in both pandemics, I believe in the goodness of people, and at the end of the day, we shall overcome.”