What Are Words For

by David Waggoner

David Waggoner[dropcap]N[/dropcap]ow and again I come undone trying to write this letter to the reader. Very familiar with my writer’s block, my managing editor emailed me last week about the status of my column. He needed to send it to production. To Chael’s credit, he was anxious to turn my usual chicken scratches into something a bit more eloquent. He even asked me if I wanted to let him ghostwrite the editorial this time, but I insisted that I would find my muse. It happened but not in the way I expected.

In the middle of the night I sat down on my office floor and spread out literally hundreds of back issues of A&U, even going back to 1991. Looking at an old issue of Helen Hunt on the cover (when it was still called Art & Understanding), I asked myself why I had shortened the name of the magazine. GQ,—wasn’t it called Gentleman’s Quarterly until 1967? And Billboard (the music magazine) was once called Billboard Advertising! I even remember some readers would come up to me at healthcare conferences and ask me, “what does A&U stand for?” When they found out inevitably a smile of recognition would appear on their faces. They understood. I know some of the earliest readers liked the name “Art & Understanding,” and liked knowing that the original name was inspired by an old Elvis Costello song called “Peace, Love and Understanding.” They listened; some of them even suggested I put something more “AIDSy” in the title. In the end, they said to keep “A&U.”

But I worry that “AIDS” is not prominent enough as part of the subtitle. Isn’t AIDS stigma caused in part by the unknown? By not seeing or embracing one’s HIV identity? If we’re in the AIDS closet, then the stigma only increases. The stigma is a whole lot easier to perpetuate if we’re afraid of our own virus. Only by being who we are can we cause the world to change its attitudes toward our community. AIDS stigma still exists, and it’s my guess that its existence has cost too many lives. Not mentioning the words “AIDS” or “HIV” only reinforces stereotypes and misconceptions. So maybe I should rename the magazine after all and make “HIV” front and center. Feel free to send me suggestions. You’re my inspiration (and my muse). And, as this is November, an inspirational month for so many of us in the AIDS community, when we’re thinking about Thanksgiving and why we’re so thankful for being alive after so many years of living with our viral identity, let me just say I am very grateful for all of our readers, longtime fans and new.

In fact, with close to twenty years of effective drug cocktails on the market, today’s newly diagnosed are being given choices for how to treat their HIV—as well as forging new identities. When we find the right meds, they not only help suppress our viral loads and reconstitute our immune systems, they allow us the chance to nurture ourselves, sometimes truly for the first times in our lives. We are not dying and being defined by others (as “victims” or “vectors of disease”). We are defining ourselves in liberating ways.

That’s why Jonathan Groff is so proud of his show, Looking (cancelled but soon we will revisit the characters in a wrap-up movie). It was the first show in a long time to incorporate individuals living with HIV or at risk for contracting HIV, and many fans were heartened. As he relates to A&U’s Dann Dulin, even his doctor took the time to tell him: “‘I’ve been treating people for HIV since 1982 and no one has ever come in talking about the disease until now after those [HIV-themed] episodes aired….’” And while Groff is making a difference on-screen, others are making a difference on the ground. In this issue, we feature the stories of two men, both of them living with HIV (though on opposite sides of the world!): AIDS advocate Greg Wilson and ASO founder Jerry Hughes. Both men share their journeys—how they had to come to terms with their diagnoses, how they nurtured new selves, and how they decided to help others impacted by HIV and AIDS. We’re thrilled to share their inspiring stories, and they represent the DNA of A&U—art, understanding, and the forging of a new empowering identity.


David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.