Throughout history, the LGBTQ community, and gay men specifically, have been marginalized and made to feel "less than" by the language used to describe them. From the theatrical "the love that dare not speak its name" to less poetic playground taunts like "faggot" and "cocksucker," gays have been made to feel wimpy and delicate, less powerful than our hetero brothers. These labels not only hurt us as a community but also can make us feel individually weak and ineffectual. Add to that the language that is sometimes used to describe a person living with HIV -- "dirty," "diseased," "infected," "AIDS victim" -- and a person can become downright defeated.
In his book Stonewall Strong: Gay Men's Heroic Fight for Resilience, Good Health, and a Strong Community, gay and HIV-positive author John-Manuel Andriote shares a different perspective. By telling inspiring stories of his own experiences and pivotal happenings in LGBTQ history in the past hundred years, he shows how often the gay community has been bold, loving, strong, victorious, and (my favorite new descriptor) resilient.
His own story begins rather humbly. Andriote grew up in Norwich, Connecticut. "My family moved here when I was in seventh grade," he said, "but my father had grown up in Norwich, and his parents grew up in Norwich after their parents. My great-grandparents came here from Greece."
He came of age and out as gay in the '80s when the AIDS crisis was in full swing, affecting many of his close friends and lovers. While working on his master's degree, he realized that he needed to report on the devastating health issue and the remarkable, heroic responses he witnessed.
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"I was in journalism school at Northwestern in 1985," Andriote said, "and that that year was pretty pivotal. You know, with all these headlines about Rock Hudson when he came out publicly that summer. It was a process of my coming to grips with the idea that here I was, a young journalist looking for something to give my life meaning and purpose, at the same time as this health crisis was exploding in my own community. I thought: 'What could I do? How could I contribute?'"
Andriote became a chronicler of HIV/AIDS and its impact on individuals and the LGBT community.
"AIDS was never something that I considered a moral issue." Andriote continued, "and dedicating my time and effort to writing about it sprang naturally from my values."
Across the years, his career grew and he became a sought-after authority, writing for publications ranging from The Advocate to The Washington Post. He was an insider in Washington D.C.'s press circles, an expert on LGBTQ issues. He always thought of himself as an observer, somehow immune to acquiring HIV.
Andriote explained: He had been "writing about AIDS, at that point, for 20 years as an HIV-negative gay man while my friends were getting sick and dying, and I'm going to a hospital and taking care of them and writing about it as an issue, as a journalist. At the same time, there was always that feeling, you know, at the end of the day, like this isn't the thing that's going to get me. You know, that I escaped HIV somehow."
In 2005 at 47 years old, Andriote was surprised to find himself diagnosed as HIV positive. After the initial shock, he tried to think of how he could have contracted it.
"How do I describe discreetly?" Andriote asked. "I was always sexually versatile," he explained, "but I sort of started moving more toward the top role. Then that increased my, I guess, my comfort with, you know, not using condoms. Because I reasoned that, based on what I read, that the receptive partner, whether male or female, is the one most at risk." Andriote continued: "And so, after my diagnosis, I mean, of course I wracked my brain, thinking, 'When was the last time that I bottomed?!' And it was really a long time. And I thought, oh my God, this is like the miraculous infection! You know? How did this happen?!"
After soul searching and scouring his brain for the answer to the "how" question, he finally understood the answer.
"I'm human," Andriote realized. "You know, that really does account for it."
But even as Andriote tried to figure out the "hows" of his diagnosis, he recognized that he was strong enough to get through it.
"I realized, even as I was diagnosed, that somehow, some way, I'm going to get through this," he said. "You know, I will survive. Like Gloria Gaynor said! Somehow, I knew that I would, through my resourcefulness, that I'd find a way to pay for these medications that my insurance wouldn't pay for. I had no idea, but I did what I do, which is one of the reasons I guess I'm a reporter!"