A Survivor’s World AIDS Day
December 1, 2018
by Hank Trout

December 1, 2018 marks thirty years since James W. Bunn and Thomas Netter, two PR officers for the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, and Dr. Jonathan Mann, Director of the Global Programme on AIDS (now known as UNAIDS), conceived of World AIDS Day, an opportunity as they saw it “for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness.”

Thirty years on, we are still commemorating World AIDS Day. I daresay that most of us long-term HIV/AIDS survivors never expected to see this day.

I certainly didn’t.

In addition to marking the thirtieth anniversary of World AIDS Day, 2018 is also a personal milestone for me. This is the thirtieth year that HIV has coursed through my veins, leaving its damage in its wake. What began as a slow decline in my health not long after my diagnosis in 1989 has sped up like a runaway train careening down one of the Rocky Mountains at full speed with no brakes, no conductor. This one year alone, the virus has confined me to a wheelchair due to loss of muscle mass, reducing my mobility to zero; it has stolen my independence; and it has inflicted upon me levels of pain that I had never imagined and would never wish upon anyone.

Well, maybe one or two people in Washington, but—

It will be difficult for me to forget this thirtieth anniversary year.

Unfortunately, too many people have already forgotten about the AIDS pandemic—they never paid any attention in the first place, were too young to have lived through the Plague Years, or are just too indifferent to find out about them. And so World AIDS Day must be seized as an opportunity for all of us to remind others that HIV and AIDS haven’t gone away. Nearly 1.5 million Americans carry the HIV virus; nearly sixty percent of us are over the age of 50. The virus and its effects are still with us. It is an especially painful reminder when another old friend with HIV dies these days.

When I sat down to write this, I had just finished writing a tribute to a dear friend, Larry Pettit, who died just a few nights ago on November 7. One of the original “hippie queers” who sought refuge in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco in the late 1960s, Larry fell in love with San Francisco at first sight and had lived here ever since (“I’ve lived here for so long,” Larry used to say, “that I’m not fit to live anywhere else!”). And boy oh boy the stories Larry could tell! At seventy-three years of age, Larry was still flying his freak flag high and proud. He was one of the most dedicated and dependable volunteers in San Francisco’s vast pool of volunteers, a vehement anti-war Quaker, a poetry aficionado, and as he himself would proudly proclaim, “a bleeding-heart Liberal!” He was one of the founding members of the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network. It was through ET50+ that I first met Larry. Over the last few years I have relished several hours sitting with Larry at our Saturday morning coffee gatherings, chatting, joking. He was a rare, intelligent, compassionate, generous man.

Larry had lived with HIV for more than thirty years; he was a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor. And so even if doctors will attribute his death to a massive heart attack, and even if his obituary dances around the obvious, we who knew Larry and who also carry the virus know that his death was HIV/AIDS-related. Of course it was. When you’ve carried this insidious virus inside your body for as long as Larry did, everything about your health, including your death, is HIV/AIDS-related. No amount of straight-washing our obituaries can change that.

We must never forget that for the tens of millions of people on the planet who carry the virus inside us, the epidemic is far from over. With prospects for a cure looking rather bleak, it may never be over for some of us long-term HIV/AIDS survivors.

No matter how you commemorate this thirtieth World AIDS Day—whether with a toast raised to a long-gone lover’s memory at his favorite bar; at a candlelit vigil for the millions who have died of AIDS; volunteering at a local ASO or hospice for a few hours; a quiet evening at home with your photo albums and memories—please be mindful that for some of us, every day is an AIDS day, every LTS death an AIDS death.

How I’d love to see NO thirty-first World AIDS Day.

Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.