by Chuck Willman
First of all, I hope everyone was able to enjoy the holiday season, no matter what or if you celebrate anything. We all know that what’s supposed to be one of the “happiest” times of the year—all filled with hope and cheer—can actually be the loneliest times for so many. I won’t dwell on that. My guess is we’ve all been there at some point, especially if we’re forced to deal with family members who aren’t terribly supportive or understanding. But it’s a brand new year, and we can (to some extent, anyway), make it whatever we want it to be. And my wish for all of us is that 2014 is filled with laughter, friendship, love, and always good health!
I did something rather unexpected, but necessary for myself over the break. I watched the outstanding documentary How to Survive a Plague—three times. Nominated for an Academy Award, the film chronicles the first few years of how the virus held the world, especially the gay community, hostage, changing the lives of millions seemingly overnight. I watched the film three times in an effort to understand and, in a way, study those first horrid years of AIDS and how it felt to be thrust smack dab in the middle of it all at the age of twenty-seven: all of the terror and hatred, the wretched government officials’ faces, not to mention those dropping around me.
I found out I was HIV-positive in a small town in Indiana and, like many of you probably felt no matter where you lived, I feared that’s where I would exist in my final days, but where I had to begin my own fight. Living in the “buckle” of the Bible Belt I wasn’t even able to find a doctor knowledgeable enough about the virus to prescribe anything, let alone the only drug I had heard of: AZT. As a “returning adult student” at Indiana University, eventually I was connected to one of the university’s medical clinics, and began receiving some care. In 1988!! (Upon my first visit, I was told to “get all of [my] affairs in order.”) I figured I’d be dead within a year. My story is similar to many of yours, especially if you didn’t live in or near one of the urban epicenters of the disaster. And yet, here we are today!
The second viewing of the documentary was to wake me up a bit. I’ve been in some kind of slumber for several months—a funk, I guess—where I was beginning to really lose steam and the desire, well, for doing a lot of things. I’ve been tired and in great pain, spending far too much time in bed during the day napping with my Chihuahua, Buddy, resting his little head on my chest and staring at me as if he’s thinking, What is your problem? I want to go on a “real” walk! Get up, already!!
I waited a couple of days after the second viewing to see it again; remembering the young face of Ryan White (happening practically in our back yard); getting involved in the little Indiana town’s Gay & Lesbian center with my partner; the support groups we participated in; fighting with my own doctors—when I finally got a couple—about the medications I wanted because I had read about them. I remembered helping my partner make a Quilt panel for his ex-lover when he died, and then going to the marches in Washington, D.C.—feeling that overwhelming camaraderie and power with thousands of other gays and lesbians and PWAs who didn’t have to feel embarrassed about our countless battle scars: the sores, marks, paper-thin bodies. Or thinking the next (birthday, Christmas, whatever) was going to be the last.
And it made me realize that while we’ve made (I hesitate to use the word) tremendous advances in HIV/AIDS treatment and care, we have so much more work to do to get rid of the stigma attached to being poz. Bob Rafsky, an attorney who helped form ACT UP and who was featured in the film, fighting like hell since the beginning of the pandemic until his death years ago, said something I’ll never forget: “Question: What does a decent society do to people who hurt themselves because they’re human; who smoke too much; who eat too much; who drive carelessly; who don’t have safe sex? I think the answer is a decent society does not put people out to pasture to let them die because they’ve done a human thing.”
The third viewing also made me see how battle-weary those of us who have lived with this monster taking over our bodies truly are. Thirty years of non-stop, head-on war has made the troops very tired. Some of us feel so lost and alone. And most are left wondering what to do with ourselves now? There’s an entire generation of homo- and heterosexual people who can’t or don’t relate at all to this catastrophe, an enormous chunk of the population around the world that doesn’t pay any attention to the messages most of us lived by in an effort to save our lives. They hear and latch-on to the word “CURE,” thinking it’s either been accomplished with an arsenal of medication, or it’s just around the corner, so why worry? Meantime, vultures hover overhead snickering and waiting, knowing there are plenty of unsuspecting victims to pick off when they drop. And we watch as the next generation, sick of hearing the battle-tales of the elderly (in gay years), ignore all warnings as the virus outsmarts and claims more and more of them in the name of freedom or choice or being human. It has become an exhausting circle that never seems to end.
I’ve written columns in the past with data proving that infection rates are climbing again among young gay men and African-American women at an alarming pace, again because the tried and true warnings are being ignored. It appears that no one is willing to take responsibility and communicate with their partner(s) in order to not only protect themselves, but protect their partner(s) as well. New “glamour cocktails” are making it much easier not to face reality, to pretend that if one does become infected, all s/he has to do is pop a pill now and carry on as if nothing is wrong. This is already creating a fresh feast of victims: careless, selfish—omnipotent.
I DO NOT have any answers. I’m just another human being treading water, infected with a virus because I did a very human thing. I just want to wake up some morning and realize that I’ve had a dream that quickly spanned a thirty-year period, a dream from which I can wake and pinch myself and know that everything is just fine. And I can bounce out of bed, brush my long, blond hair, dress my toned, healthy body in my favorite Levi’s 501s and boots, and take my dog, Buddy, for an hour-long walk.
But the reality is there is still far too much work to be done. And we need to continue the fight for a cure; for better access to life-saving drugs for everyone who is infected. And even though we can easily be tuned out, we still need to spread the word that this PLAGUE IS NOT OVER YET!
THIS BLASTED PLAGUE IS NOT OVER.
Along with being a contributing writer for A&U, Chuck’s had other work published in journals, magazines, anthologies, and e-books.