“It was 1985 and the known world went through a sexual reality shift. That strange new disease that kills fags killed a movie star and turned aids into AIDS. The media alone—so many shots of dying men, so few answers. I was just as shocked as the public, and just as ignorant. Before then, AIDS was a whisper in the dark.”
So says the main character in my novel Walt Loves the Bearcat, and so went my life on July 25, 1985, the day the world was introduced to HIV/AIDS in the form of a closeted homosexual actor named Rock Hudson.
A day that stunned America.
For many, some silent, some vocal, it was a day of confirmation of God’s wrath on gays, literal condemnation and punishment for All Things Gay.
Sure, eventually there were some “innocent victims,” like babies and Ryan White, but people feared AIDS like Americans feared Muslims on September 12, 2001, a very threat to society’s fabric. Albeit, the gay/disease thing was thankfully in the process of being resolved.
It’s about time we had a modern day miracle of Biblical proportions, eh?
That was the mood the day Rock Hudson made his announcement, and the day after that, and the weeks and the months, and years, more or less, in spurts and waves, but always laced with fear, a fearful mood that officially ended … When again?
Television told me I had AIDS the day Rock Hudson told television he had AIDS. Based on the coverage, I put together my own recent history and symptoms and sure enough, they matched what the expert doctors were telling the world on the world news nightly.
Television also told me I was going to die in 12-18 months. There was no other credible reality. No other sense to make of any of this. I was 23 years old, having graduated from UCLA a month earlier, where I was a cheerleader from 83-85 (prior to that I was a yell leader for USC from 80-82).
I was one month into a freelance a job at ABC-TV as a promo writer-producer. Perfect job. Perfect opening. Sweet Lynette was going on six-month maternity leave. Perfect time to prove my worth. The talk of the office was the talk of America, but laced with alleged inside gossip about Rock, who had kissed Linda Evans on Dynasty, and other female actresses at the network who were suddenly more than curious about their male co-stars’ private sexual behavior.
That was how I took off on the beginning of my AIDS Ride, and it was a solo flight. No one to ride beside me, no one I could tell, not a friend, not a doctor, not a family member, not a mentor, not a buddy, not a confidant, not a one. Only me. And I rode that way on the AIDS rollercoaster ride, in the cart all by myself, for a very long time.
Meanwhile, at the same time, other twenty-somethings all over the world also received the Rock Hudson AIDS Wake Up Call and were wondering to themselves: what have I done? The answer: been sexual in some way that makes them wonder if AIDS was going to invade their lives like a worst nightmare come true. Multiply that by all ages in all worlds from 1975-1985, then imagine all the sexual experimentation and exploration during that time suddenly coming back to haunt you in the form of this strange new disease in 1985.
AIDS was a generation’s worst nightmare.
Imagine my utter astonishment at the mere fact that I’m here today, some 22 years later, my generation’s worst nightmare, alive. For many years, being alive in the 21st century was but a dream. Being alive until the Atlanta Olympics was but a dream. Being alive to see the beginning of the 90s was but a dream. Being something other than another closeted male homosexual to die in such a horrific way was but a dream.
Upon further reveal, I dreamed all those dreams, and many more. Some dreams have been quite lovely. I managed to stay alive this long, which to me is quite a feat, especially considering the hatred and fear I have encountered for what is now half my life.
You don’t forget the girl in the next booth in the restaurant saying with disgust, “Oh, my God, I just got gum from under the table on my hand, now I’ll probably get AIDS and die.”
You don’t forget the echoes of pundits and political and religious leaders who dreamed of this being their ultimate dream come true: fags dying of AIDS.
You don’t forget President Reagan not mentioning AIDS in public for a very long time, then his first comment being a derisive joke.
You don’t forget Lakers announcer Chick Hearn saying immediately about Magic Johnson: “Of all the ways he could have gotten it, don’t think the wrong way.”
It all stays with you, as does the wonderful support from people like my mom and my family, my health care workers, and the people who care about AIDS, then and now.
Before now, I never thought much about World AIDS Day. I suspect because my World AIDS Day was the day Rock Hudson shocked the world.
I also never dreamed I would survive and find myself in a gay community that has come to use phrases like CLEAN and DISEASE FREE as badges of honor in the sexual mating game, often in ALL CAPS when used online to emphasize the words’ collective worth. To think what homosexuals have had to endure just to literally survive.
To think that countless online profiles use terms such as NEG AS OF (A CERTAIN DATE). And of course, the original badge created by those who feel the need to distinguish themselves with such potentially insensitive and hurtful language, UB2, as in NEG, UB2. And of course, as anyone familiar with online profiles can attest, many of those same UB2’ers are having bareback sex with others whom they assume to be truthful about their NEG and CLEAN status. UB2.
Currently, I’m working on my next writing project, which may feature some version of the following:
First Day of Class, there it was, written on Professor Rochette’s chalkboard:
POZ, UNCLEAN, AND DISEASE-RIDDEN
The opposite of neg is poz.
The opposite of clean is unclean.
The opposite of disease-free is disease-ridden.
The opposite of neg, clean and disease-free is poz, unclean and disease-ridden.
The words you use create energy.
The energy you create creates opposite energy.
If you create a world where you define yourself and others as neg, clean and disease-free, you also create a world where you define others as poz, unclean, and disease-ridden.
What kind of world do you choose to create? A world full of judgmental, insensitive and potential harmful words? Or would you rather create a world without judgment, insensitivity and harm?
The medical terms are HIV Negative and HIV Positive.
The rest is all in your mind …
… How did so many men in the gay community go from compassion and understanding (and interest in safer sex), to a world full of such harmful energy? Would you wear the words CLEAN and DISEASE-FREE on a t-shirt? Would you wear that t-shirt in front of the innocent babies who have survived and grown up? Would you say it to Ryan White, were he alive today? Would you wear a t-shirt that said CLEAN and LUNG-CANCER-FREE around your relative dealing with lung cancer? Around a friend who might have a relative dealing with it, and so on?
How we came to this point, I have no idea. Hopefully, I learn a thing or two as I work on my next novels. And hopefully, my words will inspire men who have sex with men to dream a better dream about who you are and who we are. In the meantime, because I believe in recycling all energy when possible, I’d like to introduce my newest dream, born today, World AIDS Day 2007: I never imagine having a tombstone (prefer cremation), but this new gay world has inspired me to imagine what my tombstone would say, even if only in my dreams … disease-free, at last.