Just*in Time: Honoring the Pathbreakers

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Just*in Time
by Justin B. Terry-Smith

Photo by Jessica Bolton

Being an HIV activist is a labor of love. One of the things that I hear a lot from the older generation of HIV activists is that I will never know how it feels to go to funerals every week and they are right. I wasn’t there and it isn’t anyone’s fault; I wasn’t born until 1979, after all. But I’ve never forgotten that generation that endured the atrocities of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. Here are five ways that I pay homage to the people that HIV/AIDS directly affected.

Visit the AIDS Memorial Quilt
A little history about the Quilt is that it was created in November 1985 by activist Cleve Jones. While planning the 1985 march to honor San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, who were assassinated while in office, Jones learned that over 1,000 San Franciscans had been lost to AIDS. He asked the marchers to make a placard of a friend or loved who had died of AIDS-related causes. Jones and others climbed onto ladders to tape these placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. The placards of names resembled a quilt and Cleve and others thought to make this project bigger. Jones created the first panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt in memory of his friend Marvin Feldman. Jones and Mike Smith formally organized the NAMES Project Foundation. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is always on display somewhere on December 1, which is World AIDS Day. It’s now so large that it is broken up to be viewed.

Listen to a Survivor’s Story
Make time to sit down with a long-term survivor to listen to their story. Ask them as many questions as it takes to fully understand and grasp their experience. Even if you were not alive at that point in time or you were not in touch with the community, it doesn’t mean you can’t empathize. There are some survivors that will say to you, “You will never understand what it means to be living in a time period where all your friends are dying or dead.” This is true. But when I hear this, I remember that I had my own struggles with my group of friends who I grew up with. Half of them are dead because of HIV denial. Everyone has their own story and it’s important to listen to the past so you can move forward into the future.

Look Up the Deceased
When I learned of my own positive status, I became curious about the history of HIV/AIDS. A big part of that is how AIDS came into the mainstream consciousness. One of those ways was that, when heterosexuals and famous people started acquiring HIV in greater numbers, more and more people started paying more attention. I researched Rock Hudson, Gia Marie Carangi, Alison Gertz, among others. The more I researched people from the past the more I was able to get a glimpse into their lives. It also allowed me to look within myself and ask, “Justin, what impression do you want to leave the world and how will it help others?”

Research the Origins of HIV/AIDS
Being an HIV/STI Advice Columnist I get this question all the time: “Where did AIDS come from?” This is a loaded question because there are multiple theories. What I would most concern myself with is finding out how it came into the human population and what theory am I going to believe as truth. That is what I would tell all of you. If you don’t believe me and my advice, at least believe in something.

Respect Your Elders
I will be the first to admit that I don’t get along with everyone, but I try my best to respect those who came before me in this battle to stop HIV/AIDS. I respect them by telling my own story, of how I acquired HIV and how I am living with the virus. Now, I ask you to do something to help your elders who are long-term HIV survivors. Join a charity, work at an LGBTQ elderly home that might specifically focus on LGBTQ individuals with HIV/AIDS, befriend a person who lived through the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. Come up with your own and email me with what you did!


Justin B. Terry-Smith, MPH, DrPH, has been fighting the good fight since 1999. He’s garnered recognition and awards for his work, but he’s more concerned about looking for new ways to transform society for the better than resting on his laurels. He started up in gay rights and HIV activism in 2005, published an HIV-themed children’s book, I Have A Secret (Creative House Press) in 2011, and created his own award-winning video blog called, “Justin’s HIV Journal”: justinshivjournal.blogspot.com. Visit his main Web site at www.justinbsmith.com. He welcomes your questions at [email protected].