My friend Lew Alessio, shown here with his husband Jim, gave a powerful speech yesterday at the State House in Augusta.
But then again, Lew is REALLY good at that…
With his permission, I am sharing the text of his talk here (all emphasis mine):
Good morning. My name is Lew Alessio and this is my husband, Jim Shaffer. We honored to be here today as participants in this World AIDS Day recognition, and as men who live with the disease.
I direct the Center for Disease Control’s men’s HIV prevention education program for 9 counties in Maine called just guys. And Jim has AIDS. Let us say that there is no way that I can avoid taking my work home with me. Medicines, doctors’ appointments, medical tests, research, and everything having to do with living with a serious, chronic disease is woven into our daily lives. So is stigma, ignorance, and discrimination. We are what is know as a sero-discordant couple, one positive, one negative, but because of stigma, ignorance, and discrimination, very few sero-discordant couples are able to admit it.
I am normal. I write with my right hand. Throughout history, people who wrote with their right hand were normal. Our right side, you may know, is called our dexter side from which we get the good words dexterous and dexterity.
For years, decades, centuries, children who wrote with their left hand were told they were abnormal, that it was a sign of the devil, an abomination, and they must change.
Our left side is called our sinister side. The word sinister comes from the word for weak or broken, and from it we get the words sin and sinner.
Within living memory, certainly within my memory growing up in New York City with a catholic school education, left-handed children were beaten into using their right hands because of ignorance, stigma, and discrimination. For years, decades, centuries, we raised crippled children all because of a lie.
Today, on this World AIDS Day we recognize the victims of what is now known as HIV: Human Immuno-deficiency Virus.
The rest of Lew’s speech below the fold.This next portion moved me and others to tears:
I was born and raised in NYC, and the specter of AIDS has been present for most of my adult life. This is a photograph of someone who was like a brother to me. Jim Ryan. We have it in our home on a bookshelf beside a row of other photographs of people whom we have loved and lost to AIDS. Jim Ryan was 24 when he died in 1984. He is one of 25 million people who have died from the effects of AIDS.
I know you cannot see his face clearly and the picture of Jim has faded. The picture of the early years of AIDS has faded also. We’ve forgotten elected officials who refused to acknowledge the disease’s very existence for years. At that time, in 1984, AIDS was a death sentence and the life expectancy of a person with HIV from the first doctor’s visit to death was 18 months.
The picture of HIV has changed, and we have far clearer understanding of what most doctors now consider to be a manageable disease. When it first appeared in the United States, though, the devastating destruction of HIV came so suddenly and so confused the medical profession, that all too quickly it was named with a lie. It was called GRID. Gay Related Immune Deficiency.
Today, years, decades, more than a quarter of a century later, there are still people who perpetuate the lie that this is a gay disease.
Many people might think Jim and I could be poster boys for the disease, right? It is the gay plague, gay cancer, God’s judgment on homosexuals, right? Wrong. Dead wrong.
Let us be very clear here: at no time in the history of HIV/AIDS in the world were more homosexuals infected with HIV than heterosexuals. Not now, not then, not ever.
I don’t know where the line of injustice becomes immorality, but I believe that there is a culpable immorality in promoting falsehoods that threaten people’s lives. No, that is no strong enough. I believe that there is a culpable immorality in promoting falsehoods that kill people.
The stigma of being gay cannot be separated from the stigma of AIDS because some people don’t want them to be separated and because some people devote their lives to spreading the falsehood that HIV is a gay disease.
People create lies when the truth doesn’t serve their purpose. The falsehood that AIDS is a gay disease creates a false sense of safety in people who are, in fact, at risk, and makes preventing HIV/AIDS infinitely more difficult and far more expensive.
“I’m not gay, I’m safe.” False.
“I’m a straight white guy. I can’t get AIDS.” False.
“I’m female, I’m not at risk.” False.
Every year in October, we recognize Breast Cancer Awareness month, acknowledging a devastating disease affecting far too many women. We also know that women have a very high risk of heart disease. But the number 1 killer of women 15 to 44 is what is falsely called the gay disease: HIV/AIDS.
50% of the people who have HIV today are women.
The greatest cause of AIDS is far more dangerous, far more fatal than a virus. According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon the greatest cause of HIV and AIDS is ignorance. And those of us who live with the disease and those of us who work to stop its spread must bring morality into question when people seek to perpetuate ignorance.
“If young people learn about condoms they will have more sex.” We know that is not true.
“If sex education is a part of the health education in our schools kids will have more sex,” but the facts prove exactly the opposite.
To think that if we don’t talk about protection from sexually transmitted diseases then kids won’t need protection is reprehensible.
A world religious leader makes the statement that condoms increase the spread of AIDS, yet we know that is absolutely false.
A religion refuses to allow even married, sero-discordant couples to use condoms even though there is no question this is life-threatening.
It threatens the lives of our children to think that if we don’t talk about sex kids won’t know it exists.
The state of Maine is recovering from a divisive, emotionally charged election highlighting the view of some in our state who spread fear that gay sex will be taught in our schools, as though there were some intimate activity that homosexuals do that heterosexuals don’t, when the reality is quite the opposite.
Bishop John Selby Spong in his recently published Manifesto wrote: “I will no longer listen to that pious sentimentality which suggests some version of that strange and overtly dishonest phrase that “we love the sinner but hate the sin.” He continues, “That statement is, I have concluded, nothing more than a self-serving lie designed to cover the fact that these people hate homosexual persons.”
At this moment, Uganda is considering a law to imprison homosexual men for life, HIV positive homosexual men will receive the death penalty, anyone who discovers a homosexual must report it within 24 hours or face a 3 year sentence, and anyone who defends the rights of gays and lesbians would receive 7 years imprisonment.
Jim Ryan’s photograph is a memory of a distant past. In 1987, tears of relief greeted AZT, a toxic old cancer drug that was reintroduced as an AIDS treatment, but it proved no match for the virus’s ability to mutate. Many years later, a new class of drugs called protease inhibitors changed the face of HIV practically overnight, but as people are living longer and the median age of HIV patients approaches 50, doctors are also reporting a constellation of serious ailments in middle-aged patients that are more typically seen in patients 80 and older, all signs of what’s being called premature or accelerated aging, and we don’t know why. One doctor put it this way: “It seems like the virus keeps finding new tricks to throw at us, and we’re just all left behind.”
So what do we do? I’m not a doctor, most of us aren’t. How do we make a difference?
Most important: get tested. This is the single most effective prevention again AIDS. The longer we put off testing, the harder it is to treat, the more people become infected, the more people will die, and the earlier will be their deaths.
Today 25% of the people with HIV in Maine don’t know it. Neither do their partners. And every partner is another potential positive person.
Let’s not deny reality, but encourage safer sex. Work with an HIV counselor on making choices that work for you.
Let’s speak out to end judgment and discrimination against the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community and refuse to allow people to use bigotry to promote their own agenda. The stigma against HIV/AIDS cannot be separated from racism, sexism and homophobia.
Let’s support those living with AIDS, the exchange of clean needles, and those legislators who understand the importance of funding that saves lives.
We need to talk about sex, yes even in schools. Especially in schools. We need to learn the facts. Ignorance is not bliss, it is stupidity and it is deadly.
December 1 is World AIDS Day…the day when once again we can make headlines to remind ourselves that HIV is still with us, it still threatens our lives, it still results in preventable deaths, it still results in 16,000 new cases of HIV daily. But these facts no longer make headlines.
Tomorrow, December 2, even though HIV will strike 16,000 more human beings, there won’t be headlines about HIV. The headlines will be about another silly couple doing some absurd stunt to get on a reality show.
But the reality of AIDS will still be with us. Let us reach out across boundaries of nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Let us reach out with our hearts. Let us reach out with both hands. Our right hand and our left.
Thank you, Lew and Jim…