February 22, 2011
Over the past 30 years, a tremendous amount of effort has been made to transform HIV/AIDS into a chronic disease, provided that an individual has access to care, treatment and support programs. Despite these advances, people living with HIV/AIDS continue to struggle to live a life free of discrimination related to their HIV-illness.
Earlier this week a few fellow AIDS advocates forwarded a link to a video of ABC's What Would You Do If You Witnessed AIDS Discrimination? The video captured the reaction of an everyday real life American, not an actor, who is uneducated about the realities of how HIV is transmitted when two actors interact with one another. The male HIV+ actor Daniel Logan is HIV+ in real life and to be commended for living his life as an example to end AIDS-related stigma.
ABC filmed the encounter at the Colonial Diner in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, an establishment I frequented for lunch in the early 1990s, while still HIV- and closeted about my sexual orientation. I worked in the underwriting department for a major commercial property insurance company with an office in East Rutherford at the time.
Watching the video made me reflect on how I now live my life openly as a gay man living with AIDS and my own struggle to overcome HIV-related stigma and disclosing not only my health status, but also my sexual orientation with family and friends.
I recalled a time in June 2006 when I visited with my younger brother in Boston and with painful tears in his eyes he asked how could I joke and laugh about having AIDS and live each day not knowing if I'm going to live 5 years or 50 years. It was the first time in 22 years, we had a chance to laugh and cry and share the blessing and gift to heal from life's injustices and share the pain we hid for years when our grandmother, mother and cousin all died a month and a half apart in 1984 from cancer. I told him that it does not matter the ailment, we never know when it is our time to go, but we must embrace the gift of life each day and must share that gift, our energy and passion with others.
In my more youthful years, I was taught there are topics of discussion that are just not acceptable in open society no matter how helpful and healthful these conversations may be. HIV/AIDS is one of those topics that most of society continues to be squeamish and avoid. As an activist and person living with AIDS, I often accept that challenge recognizing that boundaries need to be pushed. Thankfully, there are times I'm pleasantly surprised and discovered individuals who engage willingly in the conversation.
My brother had dropped me off at Boston's Logan Airport so I could fly home to Fort Lauderdale, and while waiting in the security check point line, I met some of life's most beautiful people. I met a lady by the name of Lisa whose angelical bright smile was proof that God indeed places angels among us.
At the time she was employed by an HIV pharmaceutical company and was traveling to Orlando for a conference. She had this amazing and wondrous calming energy of reassurance. We spoke of AIDS and how activism has changed the face of AIDS and delivered many from hell and helped people grapple onto and celebrate life and bring aid to others.
For us, discussion of HIV/AIDS was within the acceptable norm. It was the source of our passion to help others to live and breathe while others would prefer it to be silenced and shunned. People began to overhear us and started to chime in. Shortly after, we became this instant community of individuals who were created by a higher power and recognized the need to alter the face of fear and hate, not just the face of AIDS.
Our simple and inviting conversation helped open the minds of many that would have otherwise never thought of how we can effect positive change had we not violated what many consider to be an unacceptable topic for casual conversation.
How do we teach one another if we refuse to have the conversation where it needs to be, in the open with one another to share, grow and learn?