Doug Spearman on why HIV/AIDS awareness and testing should be a priority every day
NOTE FROM PAM: While Gay Men’s HIV Awareness & Testing Day was a couple of days ago (Sept 27), the fact is that every day should be an awareness and testing day because of the severe impact of HIV/AIDS in communities of color.
According to recent data distributed by the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria (GBC), men who have sex with men (“MSM”) account for almost half of the one million people living with HIV in the US. In addition, MSM account for more than half of all new HIV infections in the US and MSM are the only risk group in which new HIV infections are increasing — and many are unaware of their status.
Actor Doug Spearman (known to most of you from his work on “Noah’s Arc”) has contributed this guest post to the Blend and discusses how HIV/AIDS went from a front burner issue to the topic some segments of the LGBT community often relegates to the back burner — as if, Doug says, it’s a problem of the last century — even as it spreads like wildfire in minority communities at this moment.
The bubble burst a long, long time ago.
By Doug Spearman
On the night I turned 28, my best friend Jeff and I stood in my kitchen in Boston at 3am in the morning swaying in our after-bar drunkenness making the messiest peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and giggling about the night. I remember he turned away from me and said over his shoulder, “I have something to tell you.”
There was a pop. I don’t think Jeff heard it, but I did. It was tiny and soft like a soap bubble. That gilded bubble of safety and “not us” had burst. I knew what he was going to say, and I knew that he didn’t want to so I licked the peanut butter off my fingers and said if for him. “You’re HIV positive, aren’t you?” He turned around and wouldn’t look at me. So I hugged him. Immediately and as hard as I possibly could.
It dawned on me at that moment that we, two guys who’d been friends since our freshmen year at Indiana University way back in l980, had been dancing on the edge for a long, long time – like Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed doing the Charleston on a moving gym floor in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Jeff had fallen in and I was still waving my arms in the air trying to keep my balance.
Since that night, September 3rd l989, science and society have come a long way. There aren’t as many death notices in the gay papers anymore. My friends aren’t fading and falling like autumn leaves and turning into dried out versions of themselves. No one seems to be embroidering memorial quilts anymore. There don’t seem to be many people with the same haunted look walking down the streets of Boystown anymore.
Being HIV positive isn’t the death sentence it used to be thanks to medications. Instead, leafing through Out and The Advocate, you see people taking charge of their positive destinies, mountain climbing, and biking, and LIVING with exuberance and resignation through HIV. One of my ex’s was even the poster boy – the blonde world traveler, matched canvas bags in tow – for a drug that gave him nightmares and night sweats.
For a time in the 1990s you couldn’t go anywhere, especially here in Hollywood, without seeing a red ribbon pinned to chest of a celebrity. I remember when my boss at CBS started wearing a small red ribbon brooch that was made of rubies. All I could think of was that the disease that was killing and crippling my people had become fashionable. You don’t see a lot of red ribbons anymore, do you? We’ve moved on to white ones, because now that AIDS has been dealt with we’ve moved on to marriage.
The truth is society, gay and straight, seems to think of AIDS as the last century’s problem. Now, it’s a managed-care disease, as my doctor calls it. There are drugs and therapies to handle it.
Yeah. As long as you can afford them. As long as you’ve got health insurance and/or access to state funded medical services. I know a lot of people in California who are going to be doing a bit less biking and maybe less mountain hiking when and if Governor Schwartzenager’s cuts to AIDS funding really do happen as scheduled.
AIDS isn’t disappearing, especially if you’re Black or Latino in this country. Infection rates may have gone down – a bit – among white gay men, but in minority communities from Oakland to DC, it’s again that thing no one talks about. But it’s killing us. For the last five years, the numbers of new infections among Black men between 15 and 35 is horrifying. The numbers are almost as bad among Latino men. AIDS is the number one killer of Black Women in the United States. People who don’t think to look for it are getting it, and because they’re less likely to have access to medical services, they won’t find out till it’s too late.
Every day that bubble of “not me – them” bursts. Every day people tumble backwards off that edge where Jeff and I stood – and it’s still a long, long, long way down. I’m still waving my arms in the air. Still doing what I can to stay negative. Even though the fighting for funding, fighting for awareness and even fighting the temptation to just not put the condom on can be exhausting and overwhelming.
Why are so many of people – men and women, straight and gay – still converting? After more than twenty five years of messaging, pleading, begging, cajoling, teasing, taunting, and worrying people to take care of themselves and their partners, are we still spreading this disease to each other? How did we fail? We’ve tried everything, haven’t we? What new imagining do we have to do? What new words do we have to craft, what new advertising campaigns? I don’t know. Really. I don’t.
What I do know is that as long as I have to, I’ll keep getting tested. I’ll keep asking my partners about their status before we have sex. I’ll keep asking after my friends’ health. I’ll keep giving my friends holy shit when I hear they’re not being safe. I’ll keep giving money and time where I have it, when I have it.
I’ll keep waving my arms in the air. To keep my balance. To not fall. To not give in. And to continue to draw as much attention to the AIDS and HIV as I can.
You can share your story and learn you can protect yourself from HIV/AIDS, on the Facebook page for National Gay Men’s HIV Awareness Day, where others are continuing to post.