Children of the Epidemic
As the 20th year of the AIDS epidemic was commemorated around the nation last spring, anger, neglect, hope and nostalgia ran through my mind. This wasn't because the disease had been around for 20 years but because ignorance, neglect and acts of blatant racism and classism left many communities behind to die.
In 1991-92, findings from the first Young Men's Survey revealed the "second wave" of AIDS among young gay and bisexual men in nine counties in the Bay Area. In this study, 425 men who have sex with men between the ages of 17 and 22, were tested for HIV and hepatitis. HIV infection was found to be highest among African-American men (21.1 percent) followed by Latino men (9.5 percent).
In 1993-94, similar disproportionate rates of infection among young men of color were reported in a second Young Men's Survey in the Bay Area, administered to 719 men who have sex with men between the ages of 15 and 22. Last year, federal officials published findings stating that in six of the nation's biggest cities, 30 percent of young black men are HIV-positive, thus validating the reality that once again HIV infection is still impacting young men of color at disproportionate rates.
The last two groups of men did not look like the first group of men impacted by this disease in the '80s. These two groups of men were young, Black, Latino, Asian and mixed-race. They were young men who were beep-bopping, hip-hop listening, house/cumbia/quebradita dancing, broke, partying, falling in love and struggling to survive. Most had just come onto their own sexuality. Most were more afraid of dying from a stray bullet, or from a bad trick or a beating from their relatives if they found out about their sexuality than dying from HIV.
As Joe Jimenez, an HIV-positive queer Chicano organizer, describes it in an unpublished essay:
In an ugly way, I always knew I would get HIV. I believed it was all simply a matter of time, that regardless of what I did I would eventually become infected. In my mind, getting sick was another part of being poor and queer and from a fucked-up family. In my mind, sometime after my 30th birthday seemed like an appropriate time to die. Truly, I did not expect to be diagnosed with full-blown AIDS at the age of 22. Of course, I never shared these thoughts with anyone. I could not imagine spilling my heart out to my mother. I could not imagine telling her I was afraid of what news shows and Catholic priests said happened to gay men. She would have agreed with them. I never told her about guys at school saying they were gonna kill me, slice my throat and cut my balls off because I was queer, because I stood up against their uncontested misogyny and homophobia. I never shared how when I spoke out against the white supremacist bullshit we Latinas/os put up with on a daily basis I was called "faggot" and told to hurry up and die of AIDS. I never asked for support, never showed my fear or loneliness to anyone. My response was to drop out, then change schools and skip class like crazy.
Health professionals are now asking themselves why are young men of color are still becoming infected with HIV.
In a ground-breaking report entitled "Social Discrimination and Health," Dr. Rafael Diaz and Dr. George Ayala shared findings from a study conducted in New York, Los Angeles and Miami of 900 Latino men. The findings challenged previous prevention notions that focused risk for HIV on the individual and his behaviors. This study demonstrated a positive correlation between external factors -- specifically racism, poverty and homophobia -- and the risk of HIV among Latino men.
This social cultural model has an oppressive social factor (i.e. poverty, racism, homophobia) as its base, which leads to having some type of psychosocial impact on the individual. In turn, this leads to a high-risk situation, which then leads to high-risk behavior.
Long-held beliefs among many advocates are validated by this report. Of more importance, this report enables HIV-positive men of color to make sense of their lives. As one friend shared with me, with tears in his eyes, "and all this time I thought it was me that had fucked it all up."
Despite the presence of oppressive factors, a great amount of resiliency among this population was revealed by this study, as Joe Jimenez best captures it in the same essay.
Writing this, it occurs to me that this is larger than me and AIDS, [larger] than a young Chicana fearing the loss of her older brother. It occurs to me that this is about history and familia and dolor, a history of having little if any power to move in our lives. It is about shame and silence and how by writing this I am putting myself out there so that those assholes in the 11th grade might find out about me and laugh to themselves because they were right: I was gay and I did get AIDS. And I write it, then, not because I don't care who knows about me or how people from school or home might gossip about our family -- I do care. I write this because as queer gente, the experiences we live is a theory of living, a knowledge of survival, a wisdom we are not supposed to share amongst one another. I write this because I don't see anyone else writing it, because no 19-year-old hermanitas should ever have to envision their 22-year-old brothers dying, but they do.
Out of our instinct to survive, some friends and I developed networks of support in the '90s. We developed our version of a "house" that had long been in existence in the East Coast among black and Latino queer youth. Our house was the House of Hope. Although I was one of the youngest of the group, I was both mother/father of this house. The foundation of this house was creation of space and community to be whoever one needed to be. Needless to say, AIDS hit us hard.
Several of my boyz contracted AIDS out of love to others. When I gave them their results or accompanied them to pick up the results, almost as if in a trance, they would say that all they were really looking for was someone to hold them, to make them feel wanted, to heal some of what life had thrown their way. The deep teachings of guilt, shame around sexuality had been deeply engrained that their want for intimacy was in direct opposition to their search to satisfy their sexual desire. Sexual desire then became dirty and to some extent, this became a way of justifying their infection.
Their keen sense of survival began to kick in. Some got lost in the club scene, high or drunk at every opportunity. Some reacted with numbness and kept their infection in the backmost part of their mind and lives. Others fulfilled every sexual desire they had, while others got their lives together and continue challenging this disease. Some -- no, many -- cried and hated life for putting so many challenges at such an early age. All continued to face the struggles of poverty in communities of color.
One of my younger boyz was diagnosed with AIDS at the age of 17. He passed away at age 21. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his brother and sister and their significant others. He sold whatever he could get his hands on to make a living and wanted a second chance at life.
Early in his childhood, he was found messing around with another boy by one of his brothers. He received a severe beating forcing him to be "thrown away" from home. He, like many young queer men of color, ended in a large city doing everything and anything to make a living and survive. He found out about his AIDS diagnosis when he walked into the county STD clinic to have a bad case of syphilis treated.
Needless to say, he did not take this news lightly. He disappeared for quite a while and returned when he was ready to continue struggling, at least for a short while. His sudden death, the second chance at life he so longed for, was only a reminder of the salvate si puedes (save yourself if you can) mentality we all lived under on a daily basis. This legacy that our generations leaves behind is captured in Joe Jimenez's essay "pastillas and pp."
pastillas and pp
Writing excerpts borrowed with permission.
Back to the April/May 2002 issue of Positive Living.
This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.