Sunday, November 30, 2008

Loss and Remembrance: World AIDS Day 2008

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 [2005] 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.


Marc said...

I'm glad you cited the article so I won't have to. I actually wrote to the author.
AIDS greatest friend has been the discretion and taboo around the fact that it is sexually transmitted, and that's not just confined to homosexual transmission, it is just as stigmatized and taboo spread in societies where it is spread heteroexually. We need to say no to silence, period.
We also need to empower third world women, so they understand issues of reproductive and sexual health, and raise children who are not shrouded in ignorance.
I'm glad Hoagy touched your life. I'm sure all your instincts about her were correct.

Anonymous said...

As always a wonderful piece of writing. Thank You..
Lve Sybil x

warrior scout said...

thoughtful post sheria. it is about leadership. and about honesty, too. god- those are two very tall orders.

Yasmin said...

As always an excellent post, very informative, interesting you mention about young black men why is it such a taboo subject amongst Afro/Caribean and African/American men and women, I've yet to find any sensible answer, and I've asked it many times, but HIV is a part of our lives and should be discussed.


Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

I am sorry to read about Hoagy. The early days of AIDS were difficult. I lived in San Francisco at the time, and it was very dramatic and sad as the disease came to the surface.

Beth said...

In the 80's, I was working in the Microbiology department at a large hospital in Indianapolis. We had the opportunity to go on rounds with our Infectious Disease docs, and they treated a large number of AIDS patients. I'll never forget the sad, resigned eyes of the patient who was suffering from Mucormycosis, his nose all but eaten away.

Anyone who can see such suffering and pain and still believe that AIDS is some kind of divine punishment...well, they really don't want to have a discussion with me about it. Let's leave it at that.


Alan said...

My comments come from my experience as a farmer, and, I hope they only appear here with the approval of the editor in chief.

I'm a dairy goat farmer. We have a disease that is similar to AIDS in many ways. It is called CAE, and it affects the immune system of goats. It is passed to the young through the milk of the mother and transmitted in the herd through sexual contact. It can decimate a herd. The first response was to test for and eliminate any animal proved positive. This effort failed because as small farmers and breeders we loved our animals and couldn't destroy them based on the results of a test. The next effort was to eliminate the passage of the disease while maintaining the genetic heritage. With vigilance this is possible. The key factor is education and acceptance. As a goat farmer, you love your animals. You want the best for them. To ensure the health of the next generation we are there from the moment of birth on, hand feeding, pasteurizing, and laboring to ensure that both mother and offspring survive and thrive. It works.

I realize this is not the same as the AIDS epidemic we face. The scale is much different, and the social/cultural pressures are greater. But I offer it as an example because it shows that if we accept and work with the realities we can eliminate, or at least radically reduce the presents of this disease in our world. Education and progressive social action are the keys.

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aims said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your friend, Sheria. Someone very special to me is also battling AIDS right now and I'm always at a loss of words to comfort him. I wish I had the words. He's a very strong but sometimes bitter man who often says he is "dying" with AIDS but we always correct him by saying, "No, You're living with AIDS. Don't give it the upper hand." Thank God medicine has come a long way. Our dear friend has lived almost 13 years since his diagnosis and is still working a full time job. But I have noticed that depression is a major issue for him. Again, I feel my hands are tied because he keeps us all at a distance.

Anyway, I didn't mean to ramble on. - Some friend I am; I didn't even know that yesterday was World AIDS Day.

Thanks for making us all aware of this.