And reflection for me is not easy.
When AIDS first came to my notice, I was a teenager. In the early days, the media called it 'gay cancer' -- straight up, on television news programs and magazines. And as a kid in Tennessee, the concepts involved were at first hard to understand. When I graduated in 1984 from a still-small Tennessee high school, I was unprepared for what the next few years would bring.
At first, AIDS and HIV were problems in the cities with big gay communities and freer moral standards. I learned about it like many kids my age did--through the media. But as I matured and moved into professional theatrical work, AIDS was no longer so remote. Insidiously, it crept into my world--first by rumor, then by implication. Then kids started getting sick, and straight women and then all of a sudden there wasn't any more talk about the 'gay cancer.' All of a sudden, there was a lot of hatred. Bigotry. Torture--mental and physical--and while the government and the generations ahead of mine tried to ignore the growing crisis, my generation could not. Would not.
And the gay community, which had been in hiding and underground, mobilized into an army. And I, and other people like me, who skirted along the edges of it because of occupation or relationships, mobilized right along with them.
Being a youngster in the AIDS fights made me stand out on many levels--not only from within the community, where I was an anomaly by benefit of gender and orientation--but from without. It's hard to understand now, probably, but the fear and hysteria surrounding the crisis tainted everyone involved. The pressure was incredible. And I, who'd joined up with this events almost passively, buoyed by some sense that I, a straight girl, could somehow shield my friends from the horrific punishments they faced from the general population, found myself supported from within--by the people I, in my arrogance, had though to 'protect.'
We all learned a lot about ourselves. And about others. And hatred, pure and vicious, that whipped along every move we made.
But worst of all, more than anything else, there was fear, coiling under the foundations of what we tried to build. Always fear--and part of that fear was split off from everything else, because while we preached testing and knowledge there's still the part of every human being that's afraid to know.
I'm not going to talk about the young people, men and women, I know who died. I'm going to talk about the young people, men and women, who were left behind as survivors. Those memories are raw still, and probably always will be. Sometimes being a survivor was worse. So many lovers, upon the illness of their partners, were shunned by the families who had 'legal' responsibility for them--the same families who'd turned their sons out for being gay in the first place. How many parents who only months before had disowned their sons showed up before the end to snatch him away from the people who cared for him in their stead? How many partners were shut out of the mourning process, forbidden to "intrude" upon the family's wishes? How many victims were hidden away after their deaths, buried without ceremony or notice, so his "shame" wouldn't reflect upon his parents? I witnessed this too many times in too many hallways--a second death without closure, eviscerating the one left behind. That's what I'll never forget really--the blankness of that moment, the stare, the absolute stillness of the one left behind. And there was always someone left behind.
A few times, it was me.
It's hard, I think, for my kids' generation to understand what the period from 1985-1995 was really like and how hard millions of people, gay and straight, worked--not only to fight the disease itself but its complications--hatred, prejudice, ignorance, shame, and terror. My daughters know more than most of their peers. I've told them of the bedsides I sat at in hospices, reading out loud to victims who had no one else who cared about their condition. My girls are smart and are blessed with natural compassion. They know. But they don't know how many deaths I actually saw.
Please God they never will.
In 2011, AIDS has touched almost everyone's life in some way. I know HIV+ patients who have lived long, productive lives with the virus because of medicine, safe practices and sometimes just sheer, stubborn determination and a burning need to tell the rest of the world to fuck off. (And good for them!) Now, because the hysteria has calmed because of the ceaseless, amazing work of the gay community to educate the rest of the world about AIDS, most people accept it as just another fact of life. Something unpleasant to be aware of, but for someone else to deal with the actuality of.
While we are hopefully getting closer to a cure, the fact of the matter is that AIDS is not for someone else to deal with. WE must deal with it. WE must continue to fight, to educate, to research. WE must always remember that the only cure for the complications of AIDS rests with us and not some nebulous other.
The responsibility is ours. Still. And until the day comes that the last victim of AIDS is cured, we cannot ever lay down the burden or rest from the battle.
But today, when I think back on twenty-four years of World AIDS Day, I can't think of slogans or catchphrases.
All I see are faces. Hundreds--thousands of faces.
And I know them. All of them.
And so do you.
But today, I think, I'd like for you to meet someone else. Meet the one who was left behind. Until this country's willing to grant every American citizen the same civil rights, there will ALWAYS be someone left behind. Today, I want you to look, to really look at them. The forgotten victims of AIDS.
The ones left behind.