I cannot imagine a life without the presence of HIV/AIDS. It has always been around, and at 36 HIV/AIDS played a formative role in the politicization of my coming out at 18. Seeing that in writing is kind of shocking as I am now realizing that I am finally at an age where I have lived half of my life as an out queer man.
My first memory of HIV/AIDS is seeing photos of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt laid out on The Mall in Washington DC in October 1992. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran a front page story about the quilt, and I remember wondering what exactly it was about. I was too young and removed from the personal impact of HIV/AIDS to truly understand its significance.
About six months later, another front page story was run about the March on Washington for LGBT Rights. Featured on the cover was a young woman who went to my high school. She traveled to DC to participate in the March, and the Star-Tribune ran her story. She was the first out person I ever knew, and I only knew her through the paper. (She transferred schools shortly after the article ran.) I remember reading her say something about how the March is for human rights for all LGBT people, and that HIV/AIDS is one of the biggest issues of our community. While not out quite yet, it started to hit home: if I come out I will have to deal with HIV/AIDS.
Two months before I officially came out, I snuck away from my Catholic seminary to go to the LGBT Student Center at the University of Minnesota to do research on HIV/AIDS for a presentation for my speech class. I was nervous. It was my first time stepping in to a queer space, and I was terrified someone would confuse me for being gay. I was just not ready to acknowledge my queerness or to face the possibility that HIV/AIDS would become a major decision-making factor in my life. Still, I had to do "research", so I swallowed my anxiety and stepped inside.
The sheer number of safer sex posters adorning the walls told me immediately that HIV/AIDS was the LGBT communities number one issue. Things like workplace equality, gay marriage, gays in the military, and bullying were on the back burner. We were literally fighting for our lives, for our survival as a people. And we were doing it with an unparallelled urgency as the generations before me witnessed the death toll of AIDS.
On one level, it was overwhelmingly frightening. I was faced with mortality at 18, and I didn't want to confront what death meant for it also meant looking at how I lived. I was living a closeted life. I was hiding in the seminary. I was denying a whole piece of my self, compartmentalizing it until I thought it was suppressed and wouldn't show its face.
It was also liberating. Here I was in an office with other students that bravely confronted their own selves, their own lives, their own deaths. And they were laughing, studying, researching, supporting. They were living. It gave me hope and strength for my own coming out. I came out two months later after a few more trips to the LGBT Center, more conversations and research, and my final presentation to my speech class, of which I got an A.
The first question I was asked by a friend when I came out was, "Aren't you scared of getting AIDS?" I burst into tears on the phone. I couldn't carry on the conversation, so I hung up the phone. I knew I would have to face these questions, that they would be central to how people now viewed me. I also was fragile, broken, tempestuously young. I vacillated between crying and screaming each time I was asked that question, which was all too frequent.
I learned how to deal with that question in large part thanks to activism. I educated myself on safe sex practices, policies affecting LGBT lives that went beyond HIV/AIDS, roots of oppression and discrimination. I unearthed both through research and from living my life the interconnection between the numerous and deep layers of oppression. I found solidarity with other outsiders, with people on the margins, with those who have been the victim of American policy. It healed me.
On this World AIDS Day, the ocean wind carries these memories back to me. I cannot imagine a world without HIV/AIDS for HIV/AIDS is integral to my healing. As I reflect, a new wish emerges: I wish for others to find the healing they need and deserve.