This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first mention of what we now know as HIV/AIDS. Several Out & Equal staff members share their reflections:
From Kevin Jones
Not long after grad school, I moved to New York City. It was 1986 and it was difficult to escape from the increasing sense of fear and loss among gay men then. I was still in the closet, and just beginning to create my own community of friends that included other gay men. I fell in love and met some wonderful friends as the shadow of HIV/AIDS grew. By 1992, I was seeing my world begin to fall apart. I lost close friends to the ravishes of the disease. My partner – then of five years – was diagnosed with AIDS within a month after we bought a house in NJ. His illness was my coming out story. As his health deteriorated, I needed to inform other people in my life – especially management and colleagues at work — of my priorities as a primary caregiver. During the four years until his death, I was amazed at the support I received from co-workers. I learned many things about myself – most especially, just how critical being “out” was to my overall well-being, even in the face of the horror of HIV/AIDS. I was a better employee, a better friend, and a better caregiver when I did not have to hide who I was. The impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on my life includes my dedication to the importance of allowing everyone to be who they are without fear. It informs all that I do. It is remarkable that we have been fighting against HIV/AIDS for thirty years, and it is vital that we do not let up in finding its cure.
From Michele Horn Davis
The first time I can remember hearing anything about the AIDS crisis was when I was a teenager going to the underground dance clubs here in San Francisco and the Bay Area.. There was this disease going around that everyone was calling “Gay Pneumonia”, but it wasn’t something that WE needed to worry about, because we weren’t GAY. This was in 1983 and I had only a few gay friends at that time, and since everyone was making out with everyone else, I really thought of sexuality as a very fluid thing. Then suddenly we started to be aware of some absences on the dance floor. “Has anyone seen Stephen?” “What happened to Joe?” “Does anyone know how to get in touch with Christian?” Little by little our dance partners were disappearing, leaving a void in our world that we wouldn’t fully understand until years later.
Flash forward about 8 years and I am sitting at a bar on Union Street with my friend Richard who says, “ I have to tell you something… I’m… Gay”…and I said “ME TOO!” Our good friend behind the bar, Jimmy, bought us both a drink and we toasted a new life. Jimmy was our “Daddy” – we all called him that. He was a bartender, musician, over the counter psychiatrist, and the biggest Prince fan I have ever known. Jimmy not only celebrated that moment with Richard and I, but he fully celebrated LIFE. He was the man who taught me to live life “full on”, because you never know when it could be over. He was the first close friend to tell me that he had AIDS. When Jimmy told us a couple of years later that he was moving to Key West to “live out his days”, I didn’t quite understand how little time he had left. He had been declining in health for about a year at that point, bouncing back slightly a couple of times, but never getting fully back to the bar.
I think it was about 6 months after he moved to Key West that I spoke to him for the last time. I called and when he answered, I said, “Hi Daddy, how are you doing?” He could hardly hear me, nor I him, as he was listening to Prince’s “Purple Rain” quite loudly, but even still I could hear him sobbing a bit on the other end of the line. “Are you ok, Jimmy?” I asked and he said “I’m fine, just tired, I’ll call you later. I love you”. I said “I love you too, Daddy”. I never talked to him again, he died less than a week later.
After Jimmy died, I found out that another close friend of mine was HIV positive, and it became a theme in my life for a many years. I now have a number of friends who have been living with HIV, but thankfully, I have not lost any more friends to AIDS. I know that I am lucky. Many of my friends have lost dozens of lovers, friends, or brothers over the last 30 years. What is scary to me, is how many new cases there are each year, and how far we are from a cure. Talking to a co-worker about this piece, I said “I can’t believe it’s been 30 years” and he said “let’s hope that we won’t even be talking about AIDS in 30 more years”. Yes, please, let’s all hope.
From Justin Tanis
AIDS has had such an impact on my life and on the lives of people that I love that it is hard to know where to begin. Image after image comes to mind: a friend who was the amazing foster mother for the short lives of a series of babies born with AIDS in the mid-1980s; visiting friends in the early 1990s who looked ancient and gaunt even though they were also in their 20s as I was; the funerals we conducted and attended; the grieving families; the poignancy of trying to live a lifetime in too few years. I helped coordinate respite services for the caregivers of people with AIDS in the 1990s in Honolulu and led support groups and offered assistance to people here in San Francisco a few years later. I have friends who have been living with HIV for more than twenty years and I am so grateful for their continued presence in my life.
One of my strongest memories, though, is watching the Names Project Quilt being unfurled for the first time on the Mall in Washington, DC in 1987. I was a graduate student and had come down on a bus from the university with other students, driving all through the night, to be deposited next to the Mall just as the sun was rising. Walking through the misty morning, we came across the hundreds of volunteers carefully laying out panel after panel after panel, brilliant and beautiful and so sad in the morning light. At each intersection of panels, other volunteers placed boxes of tissues for the tears that were already flowing freely.
We have lost so many lives to HIV; just think of the work these men and women would have done, the contributions they could have made, the art they would have created, the people they would have loved. Craig, Kalei, Kaimi, Doug, David … too many others to count. I miss you guys