Op-ed: Politics, Grief and Meningitis
Bacterial meningitis has become a topic of discussion among gay people from Los Angeles to New York City to Washington, D.C., and many places in between. Make no mistake about this, the discussion and resulting awareness is going to save lives.
This discussion began in New York as a precautionary measure after several gay men became infected last fall. Last week it grew much larger over the first known case of meningitis in the Los Angeles gay community (following two others in Southern California in December that had recently come to light). That discussion has generated significant amount of anger, and the whole episode troubles me deeply. It is full of good intentions, misinformation, tragedy, sadness and anger. This is a volatile mix that has clouded the judgment of those involved.
It all began with Brett Shaad being admitted to the hospital on Monday of last week with symptoms of meningitis. The diagnosis was confirmed, and he quickly declined and died by week's end. Before his death, West Hollywood City Council member John Duran held a press conference to sound the alarm about the potential for a meningitis outbreak and urged gay people to take steps to protect themselves.
His reaction and advice were based on his experience living through the AIDS epidemic. Duran referenced Shaad, though not by name, and disclosed that he had been at the White Party in Palm Springs the prior weekend. He did this because meningitis is spread through close contact, and the potential for it having spread throughout attendees of the White Party is entirely logical. After all, the boys there dance, kiss, talk closely to overcome the loud music, share drinks, and sometimes even have sex. These are all activities in which meningitis can be transmitted.
After Shaad's death, his brother posted a statement on Facebook claiming that Brett's privacy and that of his entire family was violated by Duran. There was misinformation spread, the brother claimed. He also said he did not know whether Brett attended the White Party. (He later said Brett definitely did not attend.) There were also some choice words for Duran, accusing him of using Shaad's death for political gain and to get media coverage. This Facebook post gained traction among Shaad's friends and acquaintances, the community at large, and the media.
This stoked the fire. Duran apologized for having confirmed Brett's identity to the media after they discovered it on their own. He also apologized for other minor mistakes, such as not clearly explaining how the infection can spread. Nonetheless, rants have been rampant on Facebook and in the real world. John Duran has been deemed a villain because of the press conference.
For full disclosure, I have known John Duran for a few years through my involvement with the Victory Fund. I also have mutual friends with Brett and was hearing information as it was released. Finally, since I often travel to New York and L.A., and have many friends who do, I was vaccinated for meningitis nearly two weeks ago. When the need was brought to my attention, I thanked the friend who did so.
What seems to have caused some of the anger of the family is misunderstanding. Perhaps they were angry at the correlation of meningitis to AIDS, the "gay disease." Maybe they were upset that Brett was being associated with a well-known circuit party and many of the stereotypes associated with it. Surely they were taken aback to watch Brett go from an attractive, fit, intelligent lawyer to brain-dead within days and no way to stop it. Without doubt, they grieve the loss of an amazing brother and son.
Considering their experience, it's understandable they would be angry. I believe their anger is misplaced, and with time, I hope they will understand that something positive can and must come from this terrible loss.
It is clear that John Duran acted with good intentions. To claim he is some sort of media whore seeking attention is to not know or acknowledge that he is pretty much already a household name in West Hollywood. And while he might have better planned the press conference and worked proactively with the family, the attention he brought to the issue will likely save lives.
Claims of creating some level of panic are gay drama at its best. Folks need to understand that sometimes things happen that compel us to educate ourselves and make decisions in our own best interest. This is one such time. We now know that Brett wasn't the first death in L.A. from meningitis, he was the third. It can take up to 22 days for symptoms to present, and sometimes when they do, the symptoms may seem common. After a weekend of drinking and dancing, I wouldn't think twice of a sore neck. That is, unless I was aware of the possibility of contracting a meningitis infection.
Perhaps if Duran had held his press conference a week earlier or if Brett had a friend in New York City alert him about meningitis, he would still be alive. There is no way to know for sure.
But if we want something positive to come out of this, we should stop the bickering and honor the memory of one of our community's fallen by trying to ensure it doesn't happen again.
LANE HUDSON is a writer and activist.