Positive Empowerment: Talkin' 'bout My Generation
With that fateful smack, to which I attribute my attraction to the slightly kinky, I was born in January 1971, in Williamsburg, Virginia. I was only 11 years old when Dan Rather was talking about "Gay Cancer" and "GRID" on the evening news. It was Dan's hair, more than this strange disease, which troubled me.
A sweet little well-bred Southern boy, I graduated high school in 1989. My aspirations took me to the grand old city of Richmond, where I graduated, with honors (thank you very much), from university in 1993, the same year that I came out to my family as being a full-fledged homosexual.
Two points away from receiving my Gay Card from the Association, I was well on my way to true Queer Enlightenment, a status envied by all the closeted conservatives of blue blooded aristocracy that bog down the East Coast. I envisioned my royal birth parents reclaiming their only child, me, and returning me to the throne before the age of 30.
Everything Was Coming Up RosesI believed that I was part of the "new generation" in the AIDS epidemic: the safe generation. I was of the generation that was educated on the differences between safer sex and high-risk sexual behaviors. My generation remained for the most part untouched by the epidemic, or so it seemed to me in my safe little world. Relatively speaking, it was "older men" who were infected, not younger men, not us and certainly not I. Throughout my college years, to the best of my knowledge, I never encountered anyone with HIV or who had died of AIDS. Somehow, my generation had been granted a kind of immunity. And because we were immune, we were a generation that did not need to worry about the disease ravaging the world.
Market Days, Chicago, 1997Still in pursuit of my Gay Card, I moved to Chicago in 1995. I had grown tired of the stifling conservativeness of Virginia. I wanted to experience a big fabulous city. San Francisco, I feared, would have eaten me alive. New York was too crowded, too many actors. I picked Chicago for its cost of living, public transportation, bountiful theatre opportunities, and world-famous Boystown. And I began my "hoochie" period.
Halsted Street Market Days '97, in Boystown, was the peak of my hoochie days. I had the best haircut I have ever had, a couple of curls lazily drooping near my eyes. Working my "daisy dukes" and tank top, cute little shoes from Payless. I was flawless.
I remember it started raining on the last hot and humid day. The rain felt so good. Tents were being taken down, tables collapsed and chairs folded. I was busy hitting the 7-11, in search of sweet cherry cigars and 40-ounces, all the while checking out the boys in the rain. Caught up in the sexiness of the atmosphere, I went home with a group of guys I didn't even know. The rest, as they say, is history. A few weeks later I attended my brother's wedding and then came down with what felt like a really bad flu. First, I was diagnosed with German measles. Huh? I had been vaccinated for measles, so what the fuck? Then it was mono. I'd had mono before, this was no mono. Bedridden for over a month, I started to wake up. The swollen glands. The fatigue. Then reality set in. No generation gap was going to keep me safe. No age range would keep a virus at bay. No ignorance that I hid behind would barricade my blood. I was diagnosed with HIV in February 1998. I was 27 years old.
I was in shock for months after finding out I had become infected with the virus that causes AIDS. The virus that causes AIDS. I said it over and over. The virus that causes AIDS. The virus to which I thought my generation was immune. I became paralyzed with fear, grief and confusion. I had no excuse for getting infected. I was stupid to have gotten infected, careless to have gotten infected. I suddenly heard a clock that was ticking for me, I didn't have time for some fucking disease. One day, while standing on a street corner near Wrigley Field, I stopped and dropped what I was carrying. I began to cry. I stumbled around, lost. I finally sat on the sidewalk and just cried, uncontrollably. The dam had finally broken. That night I called a hotline and got in touch with a psychotherapist.
I hadn't just been a socially irresponsible hoochie. Before getting sick and being diagnosed HIV-positive, I had signed up to do the AIDS Ride. While I thought my generation was protected from HIV, I was conscious of a moral and social responsibility that my "protected" generation shared with others. I was in tune to the bigger picture. I wanted to do the ride to help make a difference in the lives of others. How the fuck had I become one of those lives? I continued training for the ride and I did it. I rode 500 miles. It turned out to be the only thing that carried me through those first months of total shock.
After the ride, I started to share my burden, lighten my load. I began to find my support systems. I started telling friends, one at a time. For many of my friends I was the first person that they knew of to be HIV-positive. I quit smoking, stopped drinking alcohol and coffee. I became the Crixivan and Combivir Caped Crusader, being very good about my drug regimen, watching my diet and exercising. I became more and more open about being positive and buried myself in research about the disease and treatments. I took up Reiki, visual imagery and massage therapy. I went home to Virginia and told my family that I was living with HIV. I was making progress with my therapist. And I did the AIDS Ride again. I was regaining control of my life.
That process went on for nearly three years. Healing. Trying to make a difference, not only in my life but in the lives of others. I was rushing from massage appointments to educational expos on "Living with HIV." Going to fundraisers. Hoping that Jerry Fallwell and Reverend Felch (or is it Phelps) would get struck by lightening. I would linger over lunch telling yet another person about my life now and what my pill regimen was like. My T cells were climbing, my viral load was tittering around the undetectable zone, and my was belly getting bigger.
Eventually, after disappearing into books, magazines, massage and reiki sessions, my bike and everything that kept me busy, I found myself too tired to give a shit about anything. I was keeping so busy that I never "checked in" with myself. Flip. 180. I quickly found myself depressed, canceling vacations, turning down invitations, over-sleeping, over-eating, avoiding friends, drinking, smoking and letting my life just happen without me truly being present. I felt like I was running around in circles while standing still. I wasn't getting anywhere. What the hell was going on?
The Screaming Room, a mother's journal of her son's struggle with AIDS, made me realize I was guilty of the same ignorance I had accused my father of. In this book, Peter Peabody fights for his life in the early 1980s. Sadly, it seems needless to say that Peter did not survive. When my doctor first told me, "This is not a death sentence anymore, you could live a long time," I didn't hear him. I imagined, I assumed, that I would die, no matter what anyone told me, just as Peter did in the book. I would waste away. Why? Because that is what I heard so many times, it was the only "outcome" I knew of for people with AIDS. My dad, too, thought I would most likely endure the "uncomfortable death." Finally it hit me. We both were ignorant. I hadn't realized it until I read that book. We don't know the outcome. It's a whole new chapter. Even though I am a part of this new generation, the generation that has anti-HIV medicines, I don't know how or when I'll die. Times are different. There is no one certain outcome, not anymore.
In all the reading I did I was stunned that another aspect of this "new generation" was the disappearance of so many advocates, so many activists. Some had died. Some had been sick but then gotten better and needed to move on with their own lives. Some were just burnt out and needed to take a rest, regain their spirits. But I wondered, where the fuck were the replacement troops? Why so much complacency from people, well, people like me? I was of a generation that just sat there and reaped the benefits from the sweat, tears, shouts and deaths of men and women they'd never met. Christ, I was exhausted from "making the most" of everyday. What a privilege. What is my generation doing now?
While I have tried my own little outreach project by telling guys who want to go down on me that I am HIV-positive, for the most part I see my generation has not changed. Just like I didn't want to, no one wants to admit to himself or herself that they are practicing risky sexual behaviors. No one wants to hear that oral sex without a condom is unsafe. For most guys about to give me head, licking my lollipop suddenly is not so appealing, when I tell them I have HIV. Some guys surprise me and whip out a flavored condom, which, however, is the exception. Some guys say they don't care. Sometimes it leads to a discussion or an argument. On a couple of occasions it has led to friendships.
But what is my generation doing? What am I doing? The AIDS Ride? While it's looking more and more like a big old scandal, for me, personally, it was a very positive, life affirming event -- and the awareness that it spread is extremely important -- and I know dollars (no matter how few) that otherwise might not have been available were sent to HIV/AIDS organizations.
Still, I ask myself: What did I accomplish? I rode my bike for six days. I inspired some other people. I made some incredible friends who I will always treasure. I used it as an opportunity to spread my story, which had positive ramifications for others and me. I learned that one person can make a difference. All of that is great and I am thankful for it all. But I can do more. What next? What do I do now? I want to be an activist, I want to protest, I want to scream and be heard.
What's this generation going to do now?
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