Loss, Fighting, Waiting
A Reflection for World AIDS Day 2020
by Hank Trout
On December 1, 2020, we mark the first World AIDS Day without Larry Kramer, without Timothy Ray Brown. Although we lost Kramer in May and Brown in September, we feel their loss like a kidney punch still. It feels as though we’ve lost two of our most valuable generals in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Larry fought like hell against prejudice, homophobia, bureaucracies, the government, the medical community, pharmaceutical companies, and even the complacency of his own community; Timothy fought HIV, leukemia, and the ignorance of stigma. The fight against HIV/AIDS will be harder without them.
Due to restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been prevented from mourning collectively, unable to gather as a community to memorialize these heroes properly and give them a loving farewell. Like so much in our lives, those memorials have been put off, postponed until an indefinite date in our unknowable future. In the meantime, we suffer the loss and we wait.
Loss, fighting, waiting—the three constants in all our lives for nearly forty years now—have consumed us ever since the earliest days of the AIDS pandemic. We long-term AIDS survivors especially could conduct a master class in loss: in dealing with the disappearance of our entire circles of friends from our holiday tables, from weekend getaways, from our lives; in mending the gaping bloody hole in your heart ripped open by the loss of a lover disfigured and killed by AIDS. By the time of my thirty-sixth birthday in 1989, the year I was diagnosed with HIV, I had lost thirty-six friends to AIDS—I now know folks who lost nearly that many friends in a single year. Many of us remember at least one week filled with three or four memorials for friends, sometimes two on the same day. From the early years on, we have continued to live with loss as a day-to-day companion. We have, of necessity, grown stronger, yes—but that doesn’t mean we don’t still suffer the kidney-punch pain of every single lost one, whether three decades ago or just earlier this year.
That shared experience of loss unites us long-term HIV/AIDS survivors. So many of us lost so much more than just our friends and lovers to AIDS. In the earliest days, many HIV-positive men lost their jobs, the support of their families, their HIV-negative partners, their rental homes of several years, and more. But despite the ongoing PTSD and the ravages of aging accelerated by HIV, in many ways we’ve grown stronger: we’re more generous with our time, more dedicated in our activism, more directly involved in the community we helped build. But even as we embrace our roles as Elders in the Tribe, we are still condemned to waiting.
It started in 1981 with the first reports of a “gay cancer,” when we started waiting for someone to figure out what the hell is going on? Then we waited for a test, waited longer for a reliable test, then we waited anxiously for the results of that test, waited for the government to fund research and treatment, waited (and fought) for medications, waited (and fought) for medications that didn’t kill us, waited for someone to notice that hey! we’re still alive! This year, due to political manipulation of the U.S. Postal Service, many of us needlessly wait for our prescriptions to be delivered. And still, as we’ve done for almost four decades, we continue to wait for the thirty-eight-year-elusive cure. And wait. And wait.
But waiting isn’t enough. For those of us aging with HIV, waiting for a cure is tantamount to a death sentence. If Larry Kramer taught us anything, he taught us that people living with HIV/AIDS get nothing unless we fight for it. We didn’t get the early medications by quietly sitting in the corner and politely waiting for them or by begging for them—we got those medications because we got loud and angry, we organized and acted up, we fought the medical community and pharmaceutical companies to make them pay attention, and we fought the government to make them fund research and treatment. When those first medications proved to be toxic, we fought for better, safer medications. We learned as a community that we have to fight to progress.
But the fight is not over. We still face rampant homophobia, racism, misogyny, ageism, transphobia, and, for us long-term survivors, a dearth of physicians trained in treating patients who are aging with HIV. We must commit to fight like hell against those things, to fight with Larry’s righteous anger, with Timothy’s fortitude.
When Larry Kramer died last Spring, the loss upset me more than I had any reason to expect. After all, I didn’t know Kramer personally, had never met him, and still doubt that he would have liked me. But no matter. I deeply respected him as a LGBTQ leader, the curmudgeon we needed to stir up shit. His righteous anger fed my anger; his rhetoric filled my head; his fiery spirit fueled my pride and dedication. His death kicked me in the kidneys, hard. As we commemorate this thirty-second World AIDS Day, we must recommit to fight on with Kramer’s spirit.
The loss of Timothy Ray Brown also felt personal, although, again, I had never met him. I was inspired, though, by his writings and speeches at conferences and testimonials from his friends. For me, Brown’s statement, “I don’t want to be the only one” cured of HIV, pretty well sums up the humility, generosity, courage, and hope that he embodied. We should embrace and celebrate Timothy’s qualities this World AIDS Day as well.
In this catastrophic year, this annus horribilis, the HIV/AIDS community lost an esteemed hell-raiser and one of our better angels. That one-two punch—coming in these Twilight Zone-meets-Hunger Games times—dug deep into our guts. But we recovered, determined to fight on.
I wish that on this World AIDS Day we could gather in public again to mourn our losses and celebrate the lives of Larry Kramer, Timothy Ray Brown, and countless others. Until then… we wait… and we vow, in their names, to continue the fight.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick Greathouse. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.