Every December 1st, I experience a sadness that makes me realize just how precious life is. As World AIDS Day approaches, I struggle as I recall the number of friends whose lives have been robbed by AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency). It is easier to remember their smiling faces than the courageous battles they fought to the very end. I am comforted as I reminisce about the beautiful gay men who taught me about courage and resilience when I came out at the age of thirteen. Their bodies were strong and their spirits were radiant and full of life, even as the world, including our families, turned their backs on us for being gay. They became my chosen family when my biological family no longer chose me.
Those men introduced me to a whole new world. I remember dancing into the early mornings as night turned into day. I envied their muscular bodies as they pranced beneath the strobe lights. Their movements were unlike anything I had ever seen. I was amazed watching the boys dance. They sashayed from one side of the dance floor to the other. Their eyes were often closed as the hypnotic bass moved through them. They twirled and fell to the floor in dramatic poses. Their lean bodies looked like exquisite works of art.
I later learned that this was known as “Vogueing.” This style of dance evolved out of Harlem’s gay underground scene of the 1980s. The men marched and danced as if they were owning a Paris fashion runway. Their full lips were pursed over sharp jawlines as they tried to out-dance each other in the most theatrical ways possible. But day by day, one by one … everything began to change.
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I watched as AIDS ravaged their bodies, transforming their muscular frames into feeble remnants of who they once were. They were once young and vibrant, so full of life, but now I held back tears, seeing their skin stretch over protruding bones. My strong and fearless heroes were slowly but surely wasting away.
In the late 70s, AIDS was an unexplained epidemic with no known cure. It felt like a blazing wildfire that spread quickly, scorching the lives of homosexual men. I braced myself regularly for the next phone call of death and despair. I was ill-educated about whether HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) was an automatic death sentence.
As more gay men became infected, public compassion for the increasing numbers of lives lost was overshadowed by a tidal wave of moral judgment. AIDS was seen as a “gay disease,” spread among homosexual men. When AIDS became a global epidemic by the early 80s, the stereotype as a disease only of gay men was more entrenched, earning them condemnation and fear. Intravenous drug use was also a factor in causing the hysteria and bias towards people with AIDS. It didn’t seem fair. None of my friends were intravenous drug users.
When one of my loved ones was diagnosed with AIDS, my grief was magnified. I was heart-broken. They did not fall into the category of gay male, someone who engaged in homosexual activity nor intravenous drug use (I use the pronoun “they” so as not to disrespect my loved one’s memory or their family). But their family was no different from others who lost loved ones to AIDS; when the decision was made to misidentify the cause of death in their obituary, I realized that the stigma of AIDS is still prevalent. HIV/AIDS is a chronic infection, an illness like any other illness. We, as a society, must stop shaming individuals stricken with HIV/AIDS, stop driving them back into a closet of fear, humiliation and rejection.
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While the medical community has made great strides with the advancement of life-prolonging HIV/AIDS drugs over the years, no one should become complacent. I pray that my loved ones, not just those in the LGBTQ community, don’t embrace a false sense of security. The gravity of AIDS can often be overshadowed by the fact that you can be afflicted with HIV/AIDS and live a full life with long-term treatment.
I think of my friends who have passed away from complications of AIDS and I wonder. Who and what could they have become had their lives not been cut short? Would they be proud of me as I walk through doors they never had a chance to open? Would they be pleased to see more representation of who they are in the media, and more acceptance and compassion for those whose HIV status is positive? I smile as I hear their voices in my head, snapping their fingers dramatically.
“Miss Thing… You Betta Work!”