Here To Inspire

 Op-ed: Why the Next Generation Needs Us to Talk About AIDS



JOHN-MANUEL ANDRIOTE AND VICTORY DEFERRED COVER X390 (PROVIDED) | ADVOCATE.COMAs of June 2010, AIDS had killed 19,199 San Franciscans. Nearly 16,000 more were living with HIV, 88% of them gay and bisexual men. Of them, 9,062 not only had HIV but also had experienced at least one of the conditions that are considered “AIDS-defining.” These “classic” markers of advanced untreated HIV disease date from the earliest years when people learned they had HIV only at the point they developed the purple lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma on their skin, or were rushed to the hospital with life-threatening Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. The conditions still show up in considerable numbers of people diagnosed with AIDS in San Francisco.

Walking toward Market Street after finishing my interview with Kyriell Noon at Stop AIDS’ Sanchez Street office in the Castro district, a poster on the Muni bus stop caught my eye. It showed a muscular white man’s back. I focused on the words “Stay Negative” tattooed across the back of his hands, folded behind his head.

Clearly, San Francisco has not forgotten the plague that filled the bay with tears and forced its citizens to rise up and show the world what “traditional values” look like when they are practiced rather than preached. A stroll through the city’s AIDS Memorial Grove reveals in the beautifully landscaped, serene seven acres within Golden Gate Park a deep ache in the heart of this city’s gentle people. The words “Healing, Hope, Remembrance” are engraved in the granite pavers of the grove’s Circle of Friends. Yet even here, in this sacred space honoring the memory of the many whose lives have been cut short, and the many more uninfected friends and family, still living, who have been forever changed by AIDS, it’s also clear: We want to move on. On another stone is etched the Yiddish toast “L’Chaim — to Life,” a reminder to live while we are alive. As early as 1995, Eric Rofes, then living in San Francisco, wrote in Reviving the Tribe that we were worn out by the need to keep constant vigilance and live in perpetual crisis.

Thirty years since American gay men began to die of AIDS, effective but expensive and toxic treatment has rendered infection with the virus that causes the fatal illness as close to a chronic, manageable condition as it has ever been. Relieved after years of disease, death, and the threat of infection hanging over every intimate encounter, many privately insured middle-class gay men — including those living with HIV — moved on. Talk among activists has grown more excited about finding a cure for HIV. But even a cure will be of limited benefit when half of those infected with the virus don’t know it. Even in San Francisco, the epicenter of AIDS in gay America, most people who test HIV-positive don’t realize they are infected because they have no symptoms.