Autumn 2010: Coda
Reflections on AIDS
By Laura Douglas-Brown 95C 95G
“Mommy, what’s AIDS?”
My older daughter’s question caught me off guard, though I should have seen it coming. Dylan is, after all, the child who can ask a dozen questions based on one TV episode, and I had brought her along with me as I covered the annual AIDS Walk for the gay community newspaper where I worked at the time.
As I fumbled around for the best elementary-school answer, I couldn’t help but think back to the first time someone asked me that question. I was only a few years older than Dylan, and was watching TV with my favorite babysitter when a report came on about Rock Hudson. “Do you know what AIDS is?” she asked.
I diligently watched the news every night, hoping to glean current events answers for the school academic bowl team. Anxious to impress, I rattled off the acronym: “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.”
“Yeah, but do you know how people get it?” she snickered.
I didn’t, and she refused to tell me, because she said it was “nasty” and my parents would be mad. Her reaction was so strong I never dared ask.
My partner, Dylan’s mama, had no choice but to discuss AIDS with her parents. In the early 1980s, around the same time I was scouring headlines for quiz bowl clues, her favorite uncle lay dying in a Houston hospital.
Her memories of the time seem quaint now, and heartbreaking in their ignorance: her family’s horror when she took a sip of his milkshake in the hospital, and firm instructions to tell everyone back home that he died of cancer, for fear the stigma of AIDS would endanger them, too.
Neither of us was openly gay yet, although we both knew we were different from most of the other kids. By the time we would come to claim the word “gay” for ourselves, it was already firmly associated with AIDS.
It wasn’t until I first visited Emory that AIDS began to mean more to me than shame and fear.
It was 1991. I was seventeen, a senior in high school, visiting Emory for scholarship weekend to interview for the Woodruff award that I hoped would pay my way into Emory—and out of the closet I felt was necessary for survival in my central Georgia hometown.
Shouting and whistles erupted from the back rows of Glenn Memorial Auditorium, interrupting the prestigious speaker. I sat awestruck as the small group of ACT UP protesters called out the speaker and the government for ignoring the AIDS epidemic.
Afterward, the Emory staff member who escorted us to the speech apologized for the disruption, apparently worried it would dissuade us from choosing Emory.
Almost twenty years later, I can’t remember the speaker’s name or the subject of his talk. But I vividly remember those passionate protesters. It was my first glimpse of proud gay activists in action, and it sealed both my decision to come to Emory and my desire to be part of Atlanta’s vibrant gay and lesbian community.
HIV would soon become an integral part of my career, much as it continues to be an integral part of my community. I finished my degrees at Emory in 1995, and in 1997 took an internship at Southern Voice, then the South’s leading lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) newspaper.
The intervening year was critical in the fight against HIV. In 1996, the FDA approved the first in a new class of drugs called protease inhibitors. Within a year, the AIDS death rate dropped 47 percent.
For young gay and lesbian people especially, the difference proved dramatic. I found myself at the very cusp of the generation that did not witness mass death and devastation from the disease. Now, after more than a dozen years as a journalist in the LGBT press, I know countless people living with HIV, but I can count on one hand the people I have known who have died from it.
The headlines from my first decade as a reporter would have been the stuff of dreams to some of those early AIDS activists. I remember when the Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco’s LGBT newspaper, ran a shocking two word headline—“No Obits”—marking the first week since HIV was first covered in the newspaper that there were no AIDS deaths to report.
Our headlines in Atlanta were less direct, but equally telling. Project Open Hand, founded to bring meals to dying people with AIDS, broadened its services to people with other health issues when there simply weren’t enough clients critically ill with HIV. AIDS organizations founded by gay men and lesbians expanded their services to address other people impacted by the disease, including African Americans and heterosexual women, and gay rights groups began to put other issues—like repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and relationship recognition for gay couples—at the top of their agendas.
And yet for all of the progress in the fight against HIV, there are too many headlines that would make those early ACT UP activists shake their heads in sorrow. HIV infections are once again increasing in gay men, particularly among young gay men. In the eyes of too many youth, HIV has become both inevitable and inconsequential. You can always take the pills.
This year marks the fortieth-annual Atlanta Gay Pride festival, which falls just one week before the twentieth-annual AIDS Walk Atlanta.
My daughters will likely come with me to parts of both, as I cover them for Georgia Voice, the new LGBT newspaper I cofounded this year. While I am much better at anticipating their questions, I can’t help but wonder where our community would be now if the HIV epidemic never happened. How much closer would we be to full equality if we had not lost so many potential leaders to the disease, and if survivors had not had to pour so much time and money into caring for the dying?
At the same time, HIV forced dramatic changes in our community. It brought lesbians and gay men together, as women who were much less likely to contract HIV stepped forward to help care and advocate for their brothers.
HIV brought homosexuality out of the closet and onto the nightly news, and even when the headlines weren’t positive, they helped make us part of the national conversation. And HIV shifted the focus of the gay rights movement from “sexual liberation” to seeking recognition for our relationships, starting with the right to make medical and funeral decisions for a dying partner, and paving the way for the fight for full marriage rights today.
ACT UP’s motto was “Silence equals death.”
If and when my partner and I are one day able to say “I do,” we will tell our daughters that we owe those words to all of the people who found the courage to act up and speak out.
Laura Douglas-Brown 95C 95G is editor and cofounder of Georgia Voice (www.thegavoice.com), an Atlanta-based LGBT media outlet. She is the winner of Emory’s 2008 Chesnut Award for Service to the LGBT Community.