I’m feeling the effects of emotional jet-lag today
living stewing, as I was for a few hours last night, in Los Angeles time (minus three hours from here in the eastern timezone of Canada).
The last weeks of Dean’s life, as chronicled through the eyes of one of his long-time friends, (I said a prayer for you this morning, for what that’s worth) bring up so many things for me – sad memories, sure, but also the stark realization that, 25+ years after the discovery of what would become known as HIV/AIDS, it is still an emotionally explosive syndrome packed with projectiles like secrecy, fear, shame, sexuality and morality.
Thirteen years after my best friend Jim died (I stopped counting the total number of lost friends, or acquaintances, when it hit 30) I think back to that night. For one thing this weekend’s bitterly cold “windchill factor” here is exactly the sort of weather we experienced the night of Jan. 13-14, 1994. Of course that’s just a minor detail in the memory bank.
Unlike Dean’s family, everyone in Jim’s circle knew that he had been HIV-positive for a few years. However the fact that the ‘presenting illness’, which led to his death, was lymphoma revealed just how uncomfortable some family members, in particular, were with Jim’s HIV status. Maybe Jim soft-peddled that with them, as much as they wanted to hear, I don’t know. In any case his parents, and one of his two sisters, seemed to take some consolation in calling Jim’s illness either lymphoma or cancer.
To those of us in the room with full-blown AIDS, or at least this one, this felt like a stigmatizing slight – no matter how unintentional it might have been.
Complicating matters in Dean’s case – here in 2007! – is the fact that so much of his personal life was a secret to members of his immediate (biological) family.
None of this, sadly, is unfamiliar to me. One of the first guys I knew with AIDS – who knows he may have even been the one who infected me back in the 1980s (I do not know) – was completely shunned by his family. Bad enough that he had AIDS, went their Jehovah’s Witness logic, but to be gay – good-bye! (In fact his mother, threatened with ex-communication from her congregation, made the blatant choice to cut off ties with him – and told him so.) These were also the ill-informed days, reinforcing the stigma, when some hospital employees would leave meal trays at the door rather than touch or breathe the same air as the AIDS patient.
I remind myself, as my heart stretches to Los Angeles today, that I have been really blessed with family, friends and support (including faith communities) who have walked with me every step of the way – so long as I let them in. Sometimes I may even show more stigma toward myself than do most people I call friends. Just like being gay is not always easy to live out, having HIV/AIDS – whether gay or straight – still packs a lot of stimga, whether we are conscious of it all the time or not.
Such stigma even exists in the gay community. And, where AIDS is much more prevalent in the heterosexual community, the stigma and myths fester there, of course, too – often unchallenged.
Again, Dean, rest in peace.