Chapter 42: AIDS in a Small Southern Town

December 1st is World AIDS day and I feel like I need to comment on this…

The AIDS epidemic was one of the defining events of my life.  It all began when I was in my early 20’s and no one, who was not there, can imagine the fear and confusion, the hate and the love, that resulted from this health crisis.

People forget, that in the early days, no one knew what was causing it or why Gay Men were suddenly getting sick and dying.

All of us were wondering who was next.  Would it be one of our friends?  Could we get it ourselves?  How were you exposed to it?  What was our personal risk level?  Were our young lives going to be cut short before we even figured out who we were?

AIDS blew open a lot of closet doors.  Not the best way to “out” people.  No one could have wanted that result, but it did make a lot of people face the fact, for the first time in their lives, that they actually knew Gay people.

A lot of people acted with grace and concern.  A whole new dynamic emerged in the Gay Community.  People pulled together in ways not seen before.  People got mad and people supported each other.  A true Community was formed- based on mutual concern and not just on parties and pleasure.

A lot of people-Gay and Straight- also acted with hate and judgement.

A lot of people just hoped it would go away and didn’t want to talk about it.  Until Rock Hudson got sick, most people, outside the Gay Community, just wanted to ignore it and hope it would go away.  Somehow a Hollywood Icon becoming ill changed the dynamic and removed some of the “stigma.”  Elizabeth Taylor stepped up and lent her celebrity to fundraising.  It became a cause…

I’ve said this many times:  I’ll never forgive Ronald Reagan, the Republicans and the Religious Right for not allowing this to be addressed as a public health issue.  Too many people died too tragically young while politicians and religious “leaders” like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson sat in judgement and delayed a proper health care crisis response.

And AIDS came to Danville, Virginia.  I actually thought it might be safe there.  That’s one of the reasons I ended up back there and didn’t try to get out sooner.  I and many other young, Gay men were suddenly afraid to go to the big cities where so many were dying and thought it might be safer to hide out in the hinterlands.

We were Wrong.

My friend Andre was the first person I knew to get AIDS and die.  He denied he had AIDS as long as he could.  Dennis was next.  His family said it was cancer.  No one wanted to admit why these young men were dying.  It’s how people handled it then.

I remember when I came out to my Mother and had one of many fights about being Gay.  The first thing I did was quickly point out that I knew at least 6 guys in Temple Terrace,  within blocks of our house, who were Gay.  Three of them are gone now…

She claimed I had to be lying or that it must be some sort of conspiracy.  That there was no way there could be that many Gay people in Temple Terrace.  And I hadn’t even mentioned the Lesbians…It was a conspiracy.  One of silence and fear.

When one of those Temple Terrace guys got sick, his Mother told everyone that he had AIDS and had come home.  She said it was not something to be ashamed of and if people didn’t like it, they could stay away from her and her business.  She was a very brave woman in that time and place…

Somehow,  Steve and I dodged the bullet and are still here- healthy and happy.

Today, AIDS is viewed more as a chronic, treatable condition by many people.  That’s not completely true.  Drug resistant strains are starting to appear.  People still die from AIDs.  Just not in the numbers we saw in the 80’s.

And people have forgotten the fear.  People have forgotten what it was like to see vibrant 20-year-old guys get sick and die.  People have forgotten what it was like to learn about death before you really knew about life.  People have forgotten that some of us lost more friends while we were in our 20’s than most people used to lose until they were in their 50’s.

I wish some of the younger guys still had some of this fear.  I can only pass on my memories in hopes that young men and women today are still being careful and not taking chances that could alter their lives forever…

AIDS came to Danville just like it came to New York, San Francisco, Washington, Richmond and Greensboro.  It’s still there, here and everywhere.  We are just used to seeing it now.  It’s become a “normal” part of life.

That’s frightening in a completely different way….

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1 Response to Chapter 42: AIDS in a Small Southern Town

  1. Susan Hedrick Granger says:

    I am so glad Gail posted the link to your blog. I, too, grew up in Danville, and went to school with both Dennis and Allie. Really good guys as I remember. Your blog is great and brings back so many memories. Thanks for sharing. On a a day like I’ve had today, reading your blog has uplifted me and made me think. Thanks for the memories.

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