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AIDS Is Older Than I Am: Musings From Generation Y

By Becky Allen

June 2, 2011

I'll be 28 years old this summer, which makes me one of the elders of the Generation Y demographic. Here's what that means, in practical terms: I still know all the words to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song. The first celebrity death I remember is Kurt Cobain. The first political memory I have is of "Four More Years" signs in support of George Bush, which were all over the place in my teeny-tiny, fairly religious, very conservative farm town.

Me in 1984 and 2010. I still look basically the same, right?

Me in 1984 and 2010. I still look basically the same, right?

And oh, yeah, I've never lived in a world without AIDS, which was first reported (not yet by name) on June 5, 1981 -- 30 years ago.

I don't want to make it sound like HIV/AIDS was some sort of specter that haunted my childhood. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, I didn't even know anyone with HIV growing up. My first memories of the world around me begin around 1990, and HIV is among them, in a handful of jumbled, confused moments. I think it was like that for a lot of people my age who hadn't been personally touched by HIV/AIDS: It was a huge deal when we were kids, but not necessarily in ways we understood.

When I was 7 or so years old, I remember a wild round of boys-chase-girls, girls-chase-boys, sort of free-for-all tag on the playground. A boy grabbed me, and in my frantic attempt to get away, apparently I bit him. A few minutes later, my teacher pulled me aside and told me I had to go stand by the wall for 10 minutes (the harshest punishment known to second graders, not to mention unfair to boot, since he grabbed me, but after 20 years, I think I've come to terms with it). My teacher explained the reason for my miniature detention: "Biting is really dangerous. Because of AIDS."

Clearly, by this point, which would have been late 1990 or very early 1991, AIDS was something my class was aware of. Also clearly, neither I nor my teacher understood it terribly well, but I definitely knew that it existed. And, apparently, that it was something to be afraid of.

My mother is a nurse. Around that same time, if not slightly before, she was working at a hospital. I remember her coming home from work one night, very upset. The thing about my mom -- part of the reason she became a nurse in the first place -- is that she's a true caregiver. And she's touchy-feely. Hugs, back pats, casual contact: That's how she relates to the people around her, and as a nurse, it's one of the ways she connects with and comforts her patients.

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So one night she was upset. I don't recall the exact story (I'm sure she'll chime in with it in the comments -- hi, Mom), but one of her patients in the hospital was a young man who was dying of a complication related to AIDS. Mom, being Mom, sat with him and held his hand and hugged him. He told her that she was the first person working at the hospital who wasn't afraid to touch him. I suspect the idea that no one had hugged him was the most upsetting thing for her.

People still sometimes ask me: "Where were you for Magic Johnson's announcement?" It isn't exactly a "Where were you when JFK was shot?" moment for my generation, but I remember. Well, sort of remember. My class was sitting in the bleachers of the school gym and the physical education teacher told us. I don't know if it was a special assembly or just something that happened in gym class, and I doubt any of us particularly understood what it meant, but we all knew who Magic Johnson was, we knew AIDS was dangerous, and we knew that it was A Big Deal.

It's no shock that as the years went by, and the HIV epidemic faded to cultural background noise for those of us who weren't personally impacted by it, I have fewer clear images of HIV/AIDS in my life. I remember making ABC quilts. I was somewhat aware of Pedro Zamora (my older sister watched The Real World, though I was still too young for it), and a few years later, I knew what RENT was about. I knew what red ribbons symbolized and why people wore them on Dec. 1.

Cut to something I didn't put together until years later: My otherwise-conservative school had surprisingly comprehensive sex ed. My 10th grade health teacher (a former gym coach with no interest in being delicate) showed us how to put on a condom. (Or at least, how to put a condom on a banana.) She was extremely straightforward. While I don't remember a specific lesson on HIV, I'm confident that she covered it.

In fact, she must have, because when I started working at TheBody.com in 2007, I realized very quickly that what I'd learned in health class in 1999 was, thankfully, outdated. Sure, I had some pieces right (including biggies like how HIV is transmitted), but there were a lot of areas where I was misinformed: I thought it took 10 years before you could detect HIV (nope: standard tests are accurate just a few weeks after exposure); that the same 10 years was roughly the life expectancy for someone with HIV (nope: life expectancy is increasingly "normal" for most HIVers on medications); and that HIV meds involved an intricate cocktail of dozens of pills taken at precise times every day (nope: most people starting meds now only take a pill or two every day).

On the one hand, those are some massive breakthroughs and improvements. On the other hand, would I have any idea they had happened if I didn't work at TheBody.com? I worry that the answer is no; that if I weren't engaged with all this every day because of my job, I would still carry around the stigma and fear of my second-grade self, and the outdated information of my 10th-grade self. I worry that most of my generation is roughly where I was, not because we aren't a bunch of smart, hard-working people (hey, you try coming of age in the current economy and see how you feel about moving out of your parents' house), but because HIV simply isn't on the cultural radar the way it used to be.

My generation grew up with HIV. We were among the first kids who learned about it in the classroom. But HIV isn't like, say, the Internet -- you know, that other thing Gen Y was the first to grow up with. Just because HIV has been with us for as long as we remember doesn't mean we're at ease with it, or even know that much about it.

So, just like Gen X and the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation and the generations before them, and just like as-yet-untitled generations that will come after us -- just like everyone else, in short -- it's up to us as individuals to keep ourselves informed. I just hope that other 20-somethings with memories like mine will use them as motivation to keep themselves compassionate and safe.

Becky Allen is the site manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.


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