Thursday, December 01, 2011

World AIDS Day: Be there

Now and then, wandering back roads, I come across a mature American elm that because of its isolation, or other factors, has survived Dutch elm disease and lived long --- and bond with it fleetingly. This is World AIDS Day, and as those elms might be if they thought about it, I'm surprised to be alive.

Searching for AIDS statistics can make a guy dizzy. Best guesses are that more than 25 million have died worldwide in the pandemic.

I count the toll like rosary beads sometimes in books I don’t read any more on the shelves upstairs, written by authors killed by AIDS --- John Boswell, Bruce Chatwin, James Merrill, Paul Monette, John Preston, Vito Russo, Randy Shilts ….

Best guesses again: More than 550,000 have died of AIDS in the United States; 1.1 million are living with HIV or AIDS.

Iowa’s always been a “safe” place, but the best and brightest leave --- certainly those in my generation of gay men, in search of a places where old-time religion had been defanged and honest lives were possible.

As the latter half of the 1980s passed, the bodies of some came home for burial --- often surrounded by whispers and shamed families, occasionally without benefit of a public service or clergy. I could lead you to a few graves …. Still, it was easy to deny here.

One year, the nature of casual long-distance conversation with a guy I’d once loved and still did in a way changed, at first subtly, then markedly, then ceased. A few days later, the call from a caregiver --- he had managed get into a car with a gun, drive a ways and kill himself. There was no hope for someone dying of AIDs in those days. I should have acknowledged this earlier, done more. Denial became more of a challenge.

One evening down the road, at a candlelight AIDS vigil --- rare in Iowa in those days --- I ran into the wife of an acquaintance and knew --- like a punch in the stomach. He died not long after.

An estimated 1,800 Iowans are living with HIV or AIDS now; there were more than 100 new diagnoses last year. Although AIDS, in this country at least, now is considered a survivable chronic disease --- it’s not easily survivable. You can ask someone who is living with it about that.

Not that many years ago, I knew a guy --- beautiful guy in all sorts of ways --- who had come home to Iowa to try to figure out how to live with HIV --- and it wasn’t going well. “Aw, you’ll be fine,” I think I said at one point. Little Mr. Sunshine. Damned if he didn’t kill himself, too. Simple despair.

I was reading an article the other day about a guy who had responded to the statement, “We live in a post-AIDS world now,” with, “I guess I missed that press conference.”

One of the challenges in Iowa these days is to deal with projected cuts in federal funds that could curtail HIV/AIDS-prevention efforts in the state by up to half. But we don’t live in a post-AIDS world. Funding for the medications that allow those with HIV and AIDS to live also is an issue here and elsewhere.

World-wide, an estimated 33 million are living with HIV --- the majority heterosexual, the majority unaware --- in part because of ignorance and fear, in part because of limited access to testing. Many of those who are aware are unable to obtain the drugs needed to ensure survival.

One reason for World AIDS Day is to spread that news. There’s another thread, too. Many of the people I know also know people who are living with HIV or AIDS. Be there.

Be warned that the following "In the Life" segment is long.

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