With the possibility of a generation free of HIV infection being discussed at the AIDS 2012 International Conference in DC and the FDA approving Truvada as a viable pre-exposure prophyliaxis in helping to prevent new infections, it seems we could be on the brink of an end to this epidemic. I’ll believe that when I see it.
I’ve heard concern by some that an HIV ‘vaccine’ will only encourage people to revert to engaging in risky behavior, but it seems to me that people who arm themselves with a vaccine before having unprotected sex are taking the risk into consideration and in effect, protecting themselves. If condoms aren’t 100% effective, does taking a condom with you on a date mean you plan on engaging in risky behavior? I’m not a health care expert and I talk about shit I don’t completely understand all the time... But with condom-free porn being all the rage, I think it’s safe to say that unprotected sex is already happening and a vaccine will be more effective in preventing new infections than unearthing old sexual stigmas.
Many young people, kids who grew up with Will & Grace, Queer As Folk, L Word and Noah’s Arc, probably have no idea of the stigmatization gay men suffered when the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit. Sure, bigots still use profits from selling fried chicken to keep us from getting married, but being gay is much more acceptable today than it was thirty years ago. Hell, with Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean in the news, being gay is cooler today than it was a month ago.
We didn’t always have it so good.
I was around when gay men started getting sick in the 80s. I didn’t quite understand the details of the epidemic as a child, but the reality–that entire communities of gay men were being wiped out by a hideous disease with no cure in sight–was impossible to ignore. Having moved to the Bay Area for college in the 90s, when ACT UP’s “SILENCE = DEATH” campaign was ubiquitous, I always believed that I had just missed the worst of it. The entire gay community had already galvanized and organized to fight AIDS, but by then, people knew how the disease was transmitted and the focus had already shifted from panic and death-sentences to prevention, education and early detection.
But that didn’t change the fact that AIDS was inescapable if you were a man who slept with men.
Yes, I saw the facial wasting when I snuck away from Berkeley’s campus to visit San Francisco. There was a bar that was all giant windows on the corner of Castro and Market Streets that I still don’t know the name of because everyone I knew referred to it as ‘The Glass Coffin.’ Older men, the ones who had assumedly gotten sick but hadn’t died (yet) were known to congregate there. To this day, I have never set foot in that bar. It seems morbid now, but the truth at the time was that one slip-up with the wrong person could get you sick and getting sick could mean an ugly, painful death. Being gay was still very dangerous.
I was a kid. I didn’t know anything about what these men had been through. I had been a child in the late 70s and early 80s when men first started getting infected. I didn’t have any friends whose faces became unrecognizable from emaciation and purple KS lesions. I knew to get tested every six months and I knew that blood and semen were to be avoided at all costs. I knew that condoms were nonnegotiable; if sex was happening, only latex would keep my body safe from his. I lived through being young and gay in the Castro in the 90s because somebody had dedicated their life to finding out and then teaching me how to protect myself. Fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t know any other way. By the time sex with anybody was even on my radar, protecting myself from HIV was my first concern. By some miracle, my generation was spared the unfathomable loss that the one before me suffered.
If a vaccine is indeed about to help eradicate this disease, I think it’s more important than ever to learn what happened to get us here. Because much of my gay identity was forged in The Castro, I still feel very connected to that city and its community. Maybe that’s why I was so moved by these two documentaries...
Gay Sex In The 70s depicts the gay sexual revolution that started in the late 60s and lasted through the early 80s. I watched the film knowing full well where these men were headed and what was going to happen to them. The sexual freedom of a pre-AIDS New York is hard to even imagine, but this film does a beautiful job of laying it all out without stigmatizing the men or their experience. I spent a good deal of the film wondering how these men survived to tell their stories, so thankful that they had.
Then I watched the film We Were Here, which shows men and women who lived in the Castro when the AIDS crisis hit. It is heartbreakingly beautiful to see how gay men and women put aside their differences and bonded together to feed one another, care for one another and just love one another. Seeing lesbians and straight women put their entire lives on hold to take care of gay men who were dying of a disease that at the time WAS NOT AFFECTING WOMEN is incredibly powerful. Gay boys, next time you have something rude to say about a lesbian, consider that thirty years ago, it probably would have been a lesbian wiping your ass and feeding you applesauce.
History should teach us something. The lessons of previous generations can always be debated, but the love and support these men and women found for one another in a time of crisis should inform how we aspire to treat one another now. I encourage you to watch the films and learn something about yourself.
Both documentaries are streaming on Netflix. If you have films to add to these two, please share them below.