I was a kid when Ryan White was a kid, and a teenager when Pedro Zamora was one of the most public HIV advocates in the US, thanks to MTV. After he died, I read Randy Shilts' book And the Band Played On trying to understand the history of the disease that Zamora devoted his short life to educating others about. Later, I watched the movie adaptation and, most recently, watched the documentary How to Survive a Plague.
When I read this New York Times piece on HIV and aging, I reflected upon what has drawn me to historical narratives of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. A quote, from the article:
"Mr. Park, director of the H.I.V. planning council at the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, lost 80 friends to the disease but moved on with his own life, getting a graduate degree and moving up the ladder at his job."80 friends.
I try to imagine what it would be like to lose 80 friends in my lifetime within a relatively short span of time. I try to see myself moving on from that. I can't. The Times article centers around the health aspects of aging with a chronic disease, but in the subtext, too, emerges a story of resilience among those who have continued living with the weight of losses of such great magnitude.
For many bigots, HIV/AIDS represents a proof of sorts that homosexuality is a moral wrong. For others, the prospect of HIV/AIDS is a reason to criminalize homosexuality, oppose same-sex marriage, marginalize gay people, and/or promote "ex-gay" "therapy."
What also draws me to historical accounts of HIV/AIDS in the US is watching the dance between more edgy HIV advocacy groups and individuals, and those who were more moderate. The group ACT UP, for instance, regularly engaged in demonstrations, such as a mass "die-in" at St. Patrick's Cathedral, that would have many of today's LGBT rights' opponents falling ass-over-heels onto their fainting couches whilst simultaneously crying. "religious persecution" (which is kind of what they did back then too, I guess).
It seems that these edgier, non-violent demonstrations were necessary to get attention from a mainstream and a Reagan Administration that appeared oblivious about a disease that was disproportionately eliminating purported social undesirables, including "homosexuals," Haitian immigrants, and IV drug users.
Once attention was gained, it seemed that moderate advocates were needed to convince those in power that those who had the disease were respectable, fully human, Just Like Everyone Else, and worthy of government resources.
Although, it is still notable that when the most comprehensive US law dedicating medical and social resources to those with HIV/AIDS was passed in 1990, it was named after Ryan White, the white, hemophiliac teenager who contracted HIV/AIDS through contaminated blood supply. I say that not to diminish his struggle, courage, and efforts - which were indeed admirable - but to note that naming the law after him, one who acquired the disease not through his "lifestyle," was likely necessary to make such a law more palatable to a largely-hostile public.
From a historical standpoint, it's perhaps too early to draw parallels between today's LGBT rights movement and HIV/AIDS advocacy in the 1980s, so I'm not going to even as the two (if they can be called two) movements are inextricably linked. Each year, I do an AIDS run. At the end of the race are pieces of the AIDS quilt delicately spread on the sidewalk, inscribed with messages of love to those who are gone.
I try to imagine what it would be like, the LGBT movement, if they were here today. I try to remember to be forgiving of political allies, those who are more radical and those who are moderate than myself, when I don't agree with their approaches, their rhetoric, or their tactics. I try to remain grateful, but not complacent, with where the movement is now, compared to where it once was.