Personal Perspective: Rediscovering Life
It was the summer of 1982 and I was watching the evening news at a friend's home in the Bronx. The anchorman, with some alarm in his voice, walked us through some disturbing images of intravenous drug users and gay white men who were believed to be the primary carriers of some new disease. There was no shortage of "expert" opinions from men in lab coats trying hard to disguise their lack of real understanding of what all this meant. We then witnessed a resurgence of every sexphobic and homophobic belief that permeates this post-Victorian culture.
At the same time, HIV/AIDS was promoted, perhaps for public health purposes, as a standard medical condition when in reality it is anything but. From my vantage point it's more akin to a modern-day oddity: a disease for which there is no known cure being treated as a thesis on sexual morality (or is it immorality?). The end result is "scientific" dogma competing with genuine scientific inquiry, and a pharmaceutical industry gone amok with greed, co-existing with institutionalized cultural blindness, especially towards minorities.
As a bicultural and bilingual Latino from Panama, of West Indian and African descent, I found myself detached from this crisis since I was neither an intravenous drug user nor a White male homosexual. But I instinctively knew I needed to be equipped with cultural weaponry that would help me navigate what was ahead. I had never felt welcome in Latino communities, although I did have Latino friends. People always seemed surprised that I spoke Spanish fluently or that I identified as Black first. And there was an assumption of unquestioning cultural allegiance because of a shared language. I was not prepared to make that concession. I simply grew weary of negotiating identity politics.
My reality is that, at the end of the day, I'm judged by the color of my skin and not the content of my character. I'm guilty until proven innocent. I'm a walking crime waiting to happen. HIV/AIDS facilitated this soul-searching for me. In a society where skin color is the primary standard by which character is judged, I offered no apologies for seeking refuge within the African-American community that, while not devoid of biases, at least provided me with a safer space for my psychosocial, cultural and spiritual integration. It seemed less tiring than trying to find a space within the larger Latino culture that to this day struggles to recognize the contributions of African-Americans to the life and history of this continent. The African-American LGBT community was wide and diverse enough for me to find my niche. It was critical at this time to have my African ancestry affirmed, particularly when racism morphed into a less ugly monster, but an even deadlier one.
Like many same-sex-loving African Americans, I found refuge in the assurance that HIV would never come knocking at our doors. But it eventually did. HIV and AIDS swept through our communities like hurricane Katrina, leaving a trail of drowned hopes, shattered lives, and homeless dreams. Single-handedly, AIDS forced us to ask questions that for the most part remained securely hidden in the dungeons and attics of our minds. Were we being punished because of our sexual immorality? Was it time to consider "changing"? Was AIDS a modern-day divine retribution a la Sodom and Gomorrah?
That wasn't the time of air-brushed glossy photos of happy models climbing mountains peddling wonder drugs. Death paraded around like a paralyzing nightmare. I lived through that dreadful decade witnessing what was euphemistically described as "the look": the sunken eyes, the emaciated face, the swollen nymph nodes, the wasting, the AZT-induced hair thinning. We mourned our dead before they died. We learned to normalize the pain. We accepted the loss as irremediable. We taught ourselves to grieve to the beat of really loud house music and mind-fogging drugs. We even ritualized burials, making them less about a loss and more about celebrating a life. Many of us continued having the same kind of sex we'd always had, aware that according to public health officials we could be putting the nails in our own coffins. We were force-fed fear-based messages that were designed to police our bodies and our sex.
What many failed to acknowledge was that HIV/AIDS simply didn't have the power to suddenly redirect the natural flow of human sexuality that had been in place since the beginning of time. Neither could the "pathologizing" of sex or the notion of dying because of AIDS adequately substitute for the biological mandate of procreation. It was a knee-jerk reaction to the newness of publicly talking about sex as opposed to talking around it. To this day, HIV prevention messages targeted to "minority" men fail to differentiate between behavior and identity. No matter how well intentioned, messages targeting behavior will always be experienced as personal assaults, thus reinforcing resistance and psychological numbing.
While I am not HIV positive, I've always said that HIV chose me. I've been working in this field for at least 15 years, despite witnessing the AIDS-related deaths of friends, co-workers, patients and acquaintances. It's helped me appreciate my own humanity and that of others. I find myself battling judgmental attitudes and challenging myself to be more authentic, particularly when it comes to my Christian faith, which requires me to love even my enemies.
I've dated and had sex with several men who were living with HIV. But it was my first experience that really helped me mature emotionally and socially. I found out he was living with HIV after discovering a bottle of AZT in his medicine cabinet. I panicked and ran away. Only after the fact did I understand his struggle with disclosing this to me and why he avoided sex. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, particularly since I was employed by the NYC Department of Health as a Senior Public Health Educator. It was a very dear friend who was living with HIV that helped me sort through my feelings of anger and betrayal. It finally hit me why anyone would fear making this type of self-disclosure. The risks are high, and to have to live with yet another rejection is too great a burden for people who may be on the verge of emotional collapse
That experience helped me to rethink my attitude toward HIV and those living with it. I made a decision that I would not allow fear to control my decisions or determine whom I would be intimate with. I would not collude with popular culture that would have us believe that people living with HIV were to be segregated, pitied or treated with any less dignity. I would not compartmentalize my loving and deprive myself of connecting with another human being because of some artificial and cruel bias.
My rebellion and self-examination were greatly fueled by the advent of the so-called "moral majority" -- a religious-political movement that would institute "ethnic cleansing" of all homosexuals if that were possible. Politicians, clergy, and scientists alike, forming an abhorrent coalition, cried out for quarantine, and tried to legislate abstinence and other behavior change methodologies in the hopes that AIDS would go away, and with it authentic discussions about sex and sexuality. We could then return confidently to the hypocrisy of sexploitation that under the guise of "free speech" has effectively polluted mainstream marketing. Our society would never have to confront the inherited and recurring dysfunction that has blocked real efforts to embrace sex and sexuality as wonderfully embedded traits of our humanity.
The greatest "contribution" of AIDS has been to place a magnifying glass to society, revealing the hypocrisy of moralists whose mission in life appears to be creating a world ruled by monolithic, monochromatic thinking. AIDS has given us enough evidence to take these enemies of humanity and diversity to the high courts of heaven where they will have to give an account for the many lives they've ruined. They will have to explain how eliminating homosexuals would solve world hunger, end domestic violence, end the abuse and neglect of children, save heterosexual marriages, bring world peace, eliminate race wars and institute social justice for all.
Finally, AIDS has encouraged a different and more significant examination of our lives. We're rediscovering the principles of self-determination and of transparent collaborations. While not all will see this as relevant, there's a hunger for alternatives to simply reducing our lives to serial orgasms. For those who choose, there's an intellectual arsenal rich in information that will help inform paradigm shifts and the sowing of seeds that are guaranteed to yield healthy fruit. We have to love each other through the pain, and experience each other's touch as reinforcement of a bond that not even HIV/AIDS can sever.
Victor Pond is Development Director of the South Side Help Center in Chicago, Illinois.