Frontdesk by David Waggoner
Mayhem is a better word for May, the way I look at it. Mayhem from the stresses of living in an uncertain, unsafe world. What with the aftermath of the Boston bombings and the rising cases of a new strain of bird flu coming out of China…life is stressful!
One looks to family to take the stress out of life. And mothers, in particular, for the way they accept us for who we are. Mother’s Day has always been a bittersweet event on my calendar. It’s because whenever it comes around, I feel guilty for all the years that I didn’t tell my mother about my HIV infection. Keeping it from Mom—who, at the age of seventy-eight, still volunteers as a grantwriter for a Southern California science foundation that furthers the careers of young scientists—was disrespectful at best and reckless at worst. After all, isn’t it our mothers who give us life, change our diapers, take our temperatures and give us Children’s Tylenol when we’re not feeling well?
How many young men and women stay in the HIV closet far longer than they need to? No studies have been done about this phenomenon, but it’s worth noting that the HIV closet need not exist in the first place. Coming out of the HIV closet was a slow and grueling process for me; one far more difficult than publishing this magazine. The stigma that continues to surround AIDS also surrounds entire families. How many children hide in the medical closet if they happen to have cancer, leukemia, or any other “socially acceptable” form of illness? I suspect very few; I cite two of my sisters who had breast cancer, and they felt no need to hide their ailments. Everyone they knew and who loved them offered their support.
Sadly, my sister Cindy died from cancer. But my other sister, Beth, is thriving and raising three beautiful children. Her strength gives me strength.
But AIDS and HIV infection continue to carry an almost irreversible form of stigma. When Lady Gaga sings “Born This Way,” she is, of course, referring to lesbians and gays being born with their sexual preference. But when it comes to having HIV, it is not, unfortunately, so blame-free in our culture.
See for example Tyler Perry’s scandalous new movie, Tyler Perry’s Temptation, which squarely places blame on the person, rather than the virus. It is an awkward moment for Mr. Perry—hopefully he will help reduce AIDS stigma in his future film projects. Many Americans love his work but I would hate to see his own insensitivity to persons living with HIV replicated in his audiences. This is a role model we don’t need: to give permission to millions to look upon HIV infection as a self-destructive choice, rather than the medical condition that it is.
Speaking of living with a life-threatening but also life-affirming disease such as HIV/AIDS, let’s not overlook the power of the photographic image. In this month’s cover story, photographer and activist Duane Cramer speaks to A&U’s Sean Black about how a picture can dispel a thousand myths: “At the time of my father’s death [from AIDS complications] the stigma, the shame and the guilt that I felt—it really silenced me, and it silenced my sisters and my mother too and it wasn’t until I became HIV-positive myself that I was really able to face my responsibility to talk to people [through my photography] about this disease.”
Others have been energized by families, too. Justin B. Terry-Smith’s column celebrates the fact that those living with HIV can find new “mothers,” who will support and accept them in their search for health and happiness. In Chip Alfred’s interview with Mary Fisher, the artist and advocate expresses how learning about her positive status deepened her sense of motherhood. Now she is helping women in Zambia impacted by HIV, many of them mothers, along the route to empowerment. Let’s take a cue from Duane Cramer and create a family portrait that includes us all.
David Waggoner is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of A&U magazine. He founded the magazine in 1991.
Read this article in the May 2013 digital issue by clicking here.