The summer after my junior year in high school, I attended a six week residential program for intellectually gifted students known as Governor's School. North Carolina Governor's School is the oldest statewide program of this type in the U.S., integrating academic disciplines and the arts. There are no grades, no tests, just learning for the sheer joy of learning. I loved it but not just because of the joys of intellectual exploration; it's where I met a boy.
His name was Hoagy. He was there to study drama; I was there to study French. He was funny, sweet, and talented. I was totally enamored of him. I adored him all summer and cried when we had to part. During my senior year, my best friend, who was allowed to drive her family car, took me down to the coastal community where he lived and the three of us spent the day roaming the sand dunes. That Christmas he sent me the first gift that I had ever received from a boy, a delicate silver necklace ornamented by a cross with a single turquoise stone in the center. I thought that it was the most beautiful gift that I had ever received.
I think that Hoagy was gay. I think that he tried to tell me on at least one occasion but I didn't understand, and I suspect that neither did he. I also think that he may have been in the first wave of young gay men to die from AIDS.
I lost contact with him for several years and then he turned up managing a bookstore where my younger sister worked. By then, I think that he was living his life as a gay man. He became ill. His health grew steadily and rapidly worse, and then he was dead.
December 1, 2008 is World AIDS Day. A site that I joined some time ago, Bloggers Unite, (BU) has selected World AIDS Day as a focus for its social awareness campaign. Throughout the year, BU selects various social awareness issues and asks bloggers to illuminate the issues by writing blog entries about them. As I thought of what to write in recognition of World AIDS Day, my mind conjured up the smiling face of a young man who made me feel appreciated more than 30 years ago.
I don't remember the exact year that Hoagy died, but I think it was in the early 1980s, when AIDS was still a "gay disease," spoken about in hushed whispers. Sadly, there are still far too many people who labor under the belief that AIDS is a selective disease. HIV/AIDS is an equal opportunity disease. It doesn't tap on the door and inquire, "Any gay people here?"
I read an op-ed in the New York Times (link sent courtesy of Marc, Le Trash Whisperer) that spoke among other things of a strategy for decreasing the opposition to gay rights issues. The author, Charles M. Blow, points out that a significantly higher percentage of African-American women voted in favor of California's Prop 8 (banning same -sex marriage) than black men. (Note: The black population in California was not the decisive factor in the passage of Prop 8; pundits estimate that it would have passed even without the black vote.) He suggests that the best strategy to persuade black women, who typically vote in higher numbers than black men in most elections, to rethink their opposition to gay rights is to put it in terms of a health issue.
The more stigma attached to being gay, the less likely someone is to admit, even to himself or herself, to being gay. People end up living a lie, to their detriment and the detriment of those with whom they have intimate relationships. In a 2003 study of HIV infected people, 34% of infected black men said that they had sex with women and men, while only 6% of infected black women thought that their partners were bisexual. Among infected white men, 13% said that they had sex with men and women and 14% of infected white women stated that they knew their partners were bisexual.
I do not wish to be misleading and suggest that only men engaging in bisexual behavior are responsible for the increased rate of HIV/AIDS among women (see chart for most recent data  on infected women); it is a factor but according to a 2005 CDC HIV/AIDS Report, the majority of infected women were infected via high-risk heterosexual contact. However, I was struck by Mr. Blow's discussion of the need to focus on the health issue aspect as a tool to persuade black women that it is in our self-interests to change our cultural perceptions of homosexuality. As he puts it, "The more open blacks are to the idea of homosexuality, the more likely black men would be to discuss their sexual orientations and sexual histories. The more open they are, the less likely black women would be to put themselves at risk unwittingly." ( Charles M. Blow)
I don't know if the answer is quite as simple as linking gay rights and health issues, but I think that a focus on health issues should be a piece of the strategy for keeping our attention on HIV/AIDS as a disease and not an issue of religion or morality. I think that there has been progress made in the treatment of HIV/AIDS since a sensitive boy made an awkward girl feel pretty but there is still a long road ahead and the journey is far from over.
The theme for World AIDS Day is leadership--from all sectors--government, individuals, families, communities, and organizations. I take this to mean that we are collectively and individually responsible for keeping this health issue on the front burner. HIV/AIDS is a pandemic, it knows no geographic boundaries. It is a worldwide problem and it requires a worldwide effort to conquer it.