A Hollow Victory

A Hollow Victory
From fighting for our rights to fighting for our lives & back again
by Harry Breaux

Photo by Russell Yip/San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved

As I put this blank sheet of electronic paper on to my electronic desktop, I wonder what new twist, what new angle, what new sketch can I draw about AIDS? What can I possibly conjure up to tickle the story of the last thirty-plus years that could possibly do the experience justice and not repeat the thousand other versions that have been offered?

Then I begin to remember the years that came before 1980, the year when my conversion from HIV-negative to HIV-positive occurred. I know this date of conversion because of the blood samples kept on file at the CDC from the visits to the City Clinic to treat the STDs I had encountered as part of the “gay freedom” days of the 1970s here in San Francisco.

During those years, a new way of thinking was being formed. One that began to realize on a larger scale that “we” didn’t just mean those that looked and acted like us or lived in our hometown or state or country. It broadened that “we” to include all those who live on this planet. At least that’s what the seventies were about for me. It was a “mind blowing” time. By mental and moral experimentation the world seemed to transform and consciousness was raised.

By 1970, I had begun a path that led me to the psychedelic revolution and “freedom.” I was led to the Castro and the other gay enclaves that cropped up and attracted men of our particular bent.

The seventies gave me the experiences I needed to make peace with my “difference,” to understand what it is like to live a style that had been repressed for all of my earlier years, to be “out and proud” of my difference. I witnessed a sexual transformation in society that allowed a group who had been forced to the sidelines to suddenly find their public voice. I was a cog in that wheel of and for change. There were many voices heard in this new world, filled with courage, passion, determination, anger, rebellion, political action and eventually, shock and awe. The assassination of Harvey. The onset of AIDS.

And then came 1980, the beginning of the AIDS years. The focus began to switch.

Prior to 1980 or so, “Gay Power” was evolving to politically challenge stigma, exclusion, harassment and general misunderstanding or who or what homosexuals and homosexuality were. Suddenly Harvey Milk was killed and our momentum needed a new leader. Many were around to continue his work, but before any reorganization could coalesce significantly, AIDS began killing off the members of the movement and everything changed for the dark. The prior productive years of bringing homosexuality “out of the closet” were eclipsed by a virus.

Harvey’s assassination was a big hit, but one that could be overcome by the momentum he led. There were other leaders in the group who could step up and for a couple of years it looked really hopeful. Then came ARC, GRID, HIV and finally AIDS. The group began to disappear. Just staying alive became critical. “Fighting for our Rights” became “Fighting for our Lives”. When a leader is lost, others can step up, but when the group is lost, well….

When the first test for the virus came out in 1985, I was called in with a lot of others for a free test. I qualified for this because of being in a hepatitis study in the late seventies. Now by re-testing these many blood samples from many clients kept in a CDC vault somewhere in Atlanta, a picture of conversion dates could be created. Mine came out with samples from 1979 being negative and 1981, positive. By this method, I seroconverted during 1980, probably, answering that common question, “How long have you been positive?”

In 1980, I was living in Houston and remember waking up one morning around 3 a.m. in a sweat like I had never experienced before. Everything was soaked and it seemed sweat was coming out of my fingernails. That was the moment that I believe the virus went from forty-nine percent to fifty-one percent and my HIV-positive “adventure” was on. I fell back asleep and awoke the next morning feeling fine. Little did I know at that point about how long and how slowly the virus would take until it debilitated me. That occurred in 1996, when I collapsed with three diseases. The doctor said, “I’ve seen all three of these diseases but never in the same person at the same time. I can only give you a 50/50 chance at combatting them.” After three weeks in the hospital, I was released. We succeeded in pushing back in time the end I’m so clearly heading for.

Most of the time “positive” is a good thing. I’m positive all persons should be treated equally, and yet, I have experienced otherwise. I’m positive that AIDS created a perfect opportunity for all to demonstrate the principles of caring and community I was taught as a kid, and yet, I have experienced otherwise. I’m positive that inside all of us somewhere is a concept of a heart that brims with compassion and grace, and yet, I have experienced otherwise. I was positive that my government was supportive and protective of its citizens, yet, during the “AIDS years,” I have experienced otherwise.

It seems from birth, the focus of my life in one respect or another has been “homosexuality.” From the earliest of times until the 1970s, I had to confront my sexual orientation with secrecy and shame. I was aware I was different, but I never clearly knew how. When the hormones began to blossom, it became very apparent that my blossoms weren’t as welcomed as those of my peers and I learned to “hide to survive.”

Back in 1985, when my test results came back HIV-positive, I didn’t even flinch. What else could I expect knowing I had been a heavy participant in the explosive gay sexual revolution. I began at that time a race to give all I could as fast as I could for the next two years that I was predicted to live. It worked out differently and I became a long-time survivor of AIDS. Culminating more recently in being one of the featured participants in the San Francisco Chronicle’s project and documentary Last Men Standing, another powerful tribute to surviving with AIDS.

There is a life here still, but it has been gutted by the betrayal of my country in its response to AIDS. I, and those like me living the “surviving” game, no longer are certain that the rights and privileges we fought so hard for will not be taken away. Daily we are bombarded by reports of the easy erosion of the gains attained on the backs of the now dead.

Living is much less the adventure it once was and the recognition that it won’t get better makes “being lucky I lived” a bit of a hollow victory. I no longer worry for me, but for those who will come. They may not realize the fragility of what we accomplished and through apathy and naiveté will awaken all too late to the past being repeated.

Harry Breaux is a native of Louisiana and was active in the hippie movement of the early seventies. He moved to a commune in Oregon and then settled in San Francisco, where, as a thirty-seven-year long-term survivor of AIDS, was honored to be in the San Francisco Chronicle’s documentary Last Men Standing.