I first heard about HIV and AIDS as a teenager in the mid-1980s. The spread of this “gay cancer” as it was known then was becoming a talked about mainstream news item. I remember being quite curious at the time as to why it only seemed to be affecting men, gay men in particular. The topic was off limits at my very conservative Mennonite high school. Growing up, we were not allowed to have a television set, as it was considered “worldly,” and a tool of the devil, so the information I had about the virus was obtained through reading the daily newspaper. My father, the über-conservative that he was, dismissed HIV as “God’s punishment on the queers.” He advocated that all gay people be shipped off to an island where they could not infect anyone else. Small wonder that having been raised around this type of bigotry, I did not come out myself until well into my 20s.
When I graduated from high school, I worked for two seasons in
at a bed and breakfast inn. The owner’s son, Charles visited from Rehoboth Beach, DE for a while each summer. He was openly gay as were several of my co-workers but it wasn’t until later that I learned that Charles had AIDS. I received a note from his mother less than a year after I had last worked with him, telling me that she had just returned from San Francisco to attend his funeral. Charles was the first person I knew, worked with, and respected that died of AIDS. San Francisco
Two years later, the third season of the Real World began airing. The Real World is a series on MTV which is set in different cities. In 1994, it was set in
. The third season of The Real World featured a young gay man from San Francisco named Pedro Zamora. Pedro had become infected with HIV as a teenager and he was dying of AIDS. At that time (1994), there was still a great deal of misinformation about how HIV could be spread. Yet playing out in living color, on national television, was a house full of young people, living, touching, hugging, educating, and loving this young man with AIDS. Pedro was the first young man with HIV/AIDS to appear as a cast member on a television show and his inclusion in the cast of The Real World, Miami forever impacted an entire generation of young Americans. Pedro did not make it through filming the full season of the Real World. He became ill and was rushed to the hospital about mid-season. Pedro died shortly after the season finale of the show aired; this brave courageous young man who became for many their first connection to someone with the disease. My friends and I have discussed the impact that Pedro had on us. He was born the same year as me. This was someone we knew, it seemed; he was our age. For those of us who saw the show, Pedro’s courage and openness about his sexuality and HIV/AIDS remains a touchstone for our generation. San Francisco
Through Facebook, I recently reconnected with a classmate, Brooke, who I had attended school with from Kindergarten through twelfth grade. Growing up, I had always assumed that his oldest brother, Brian, was gay. Brian left our community as soon as he graduated from high school to pursue his artistic dreams in
New York City and . My mother told me several years ago that Brian had died of pneumonia. Given his age and my suspicions about his sexuality, I assumed Brian had died of AIDS. After reconnecting with my friend, I told him that I was out now. What followed was a heart wrenching series of e-mails about his brother’s sexuality and HIV/AIDS status and how the family had been shamed into silence by the community. My friend was particularly impacted, as Brian was his favorite brother. Brian and Brooke were both artists; Brian was a singer and dancer, while Brooke is a visual artist. Brooke was often accused by others of being gay, when we were growing up because of his own artistic leanings and because of suspicions about his brother’s sexuality. I shared with Brooke the research I have been conducting for the past year and a half, and we wondered how the negative backlash against homosexuals and people living with the virus had impacted the two of us. After almost 20 years, we were reconnected by a shared wall of silence regarding sexuality and HIV/AIDS. Philadelphia
It has been almost 16 years since I left
Delaware, and now I find myself in , working with the Ryan White program. Ryan White is the program that administers federal funding for services for people living with HIV & AIDS. I find myself surrounded by some administrators who want me to believe that the clients I work with are dishonest, liars, or somehow less than simply because they have HIV and AIDS. While this may be true of some Ryan White clients, or any group of people for that matter, part of me will always fight to believe that a piece of Pedro and a piece of Brian is alive in each and every one of them. In their faces I see the ones that I have known, and some that have been lost to this horrible disease. Miami
And that’s the view from here...