Reflections & Understanding

BY Kai Wright

November 23 2005 12:00 AM ET

The funny thing about HIV is just how little it matters.

Sure, the nasty little bug still kills millions of people around the world every year. Yes, we expend innumerable resources to keep those of us who are perpetually 'at risk' of contracting the damn thing on the negative side of the equation. But in spite of all that, HIV is just not terribly relevant to the AIDS epidemic.

That's something LeRoy Whitfield, who usually writes in this space, might have explained better than I can. He can't now; he's dead. HIV killed my friend on October 9, just three weeks after his 36th birthday. So I'll try to explain it for him.

Even now, I give HIV more agency than it deserves, convicting it as LeRoy's murderer. It is comforting to do so. If a virus is the killer, then there is hope: A virus can be controlled. Loneliness, fear, the deep longing to be loved--these sorts of things often feel unconquerable. But a virus, that we can deal with.

LeRoy tested positive at 19 and lived without an HIV-related illness for most of the next 16 years. He lived many of those years out in print, inviting the world to watch and dissect his life as 'an HIV-positive poster child' through his writings. So perhaps it makes sense that, when he did develop AIDS in recent years, we all felt like it was appropriate to sound off to him on what he should do about it.

As readers of this column know well, LeRoy struggled with the decision over whether to take antiretrovirals. 'I've argued against taking meds for so many years,' he wrote in the August issue, 'that now, with my numbers stacked against me, I find it hard to stop. I keep weighing potential side effects against the ill alternative--opportunistic infections--and I can't decide which is worse to my mind. I just can't decide.'

It was an indecision that drove most of us who loved him to rage. How could he not see that medicine, imperfect though it may be, was his only hope of survival? He had, after all, reported on this epidemic for years, both as a columnist and as an investigative journalist. He'd been an associate editor at Positively Aware magazine in his hometown of Chicago. He'd been a columnist and an editor at Poz. His r'sume sparkled with big-name credits--Vibe, The Source, New York's Daily News--where he had plumbed the social and political complexities the epidemic brings into relief.

And he kept at this work right up to the end, winning a National Association of Black Journalists magazine writing award just a week after his death--for an article about the public policy challenges presented by people living longer with HIV, of all things.

So given all that, how could LeRoy not understand that the meds were the only way to beat this virus once he'd been diagnosed with AIDS? 'It's just about so much more than that, Kai,' he'd sigh. What he understood, and we could not, is how little the virus matters to the epidemic.

All the carefully laid out facts about the pros and cons of taking medication could no more ease LeRoy's anxieties over treatment than the now'crystal-clear dos and don'ts of safer sex will ever stand a chance against people's need to feel vulnerable while having it. I don't know what demons LeRoy wrestled with--some he articulated to me, some he wrote about, but some he likely never even explained to himself. I do, however, know that HIV was not one of them.

No, for LeRoy, HIV was just a virus. I now regret every conversation LeRoy and I had about his medication, about his virus. They crowded out our far more fulfilling talks about love and lust, ambition and failure, loneliness and fear and joy. It was in this dialogue that LeRoy's salvation was to be found.

In death, as in life, LeRoy has taught me to see this epidemic more clearly. I finally get it: As long as we narrowly fight HIV, we will keep dying from AIDS.

Wright is a journalist who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. With LeRoy Whitfield, he cowrote 'AIDS Goes Gray,' which won a 2005 Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. More of his work can be found at www.kaiwright.com.

Tags: Native Voice

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