I remember first hearing about AIDS in 1984, when I was only 14 years old. That was a scary time for me. I was just growing to understand that maybe, just maybe, I was attracted more to boys than to girls. And what made that idea even more frightening were the not-so-subtly implied messages about AIDS'that it was God's punishment for homosexuality and that gay men, who were contracting the disease in large numbers, deserved their fate.
The climate was one of fear, xenophobia, and stigma. In what can only be described as aggressive apathy or politics of the privileged, the policies of the Reagan administration at the time cost many lives and squandered precious years of research and medical treatment. The politics of 'we' versus 'they' dominated. It was clear that 'they''those with AIDS'did not matter nearly as much as 'we' did.
Today, 25 years into the AIDS pandemic, I wonder what if anything has changed. Sadly, it appears as though very little has.
The annual budgets at AIDS groups across the country'including the transitional housing program where I work'are constantly in jeopardy as the Bush administration flat-funds vital AIDS services but funnels tens of millions of dollars to religious and right-wing groups for simplistic 'Just say no' HIV prevention initiatives. Any responsible discussion of safer sex is demonized. Don't talk about it, and it will go away. Or perhaps it will only be 'they' who suffer'not 'we.'
Men and women of color, particularly heterosexuals, are becoming infected at alarming rates because, as the literature suggests, many felt that 'we''the minority community'didn't have to worry about HIV. Safer-sex messages fell on deaf ears. Why use a condom if you're not a gay white male?
The lifesaving support system for HIV-positive people is being chipped away. Many state-run AIDS Drug Assistance Programs, which provide medications to low-income HIVers, have capped enrollment and have waiting lists. Housing for people with HIV is disappearing. Proven HIV prevention programs are losing funding to ineffective abstinence-only outreach. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has spearheaded many of the advancements in HIV prevention, care, and treatment, now has to monitor its language in order to not upset conservatives in the Administration and Congress.
But lest this simply be a tirade against the injustices of our world, I reflect on something else that has not changed with respect to this epidemic--the will to live. Every day where I work, I meet with homeless HIV-positive men and women whose tenacity and spirit inspire me to live the best life that I can and never to see myself as a victim to this virus. Their spirit, my spirit, our spirit is a living testament that regardless of the circumstances that confront us, we can rise above them.
Fransen is a licensed clinical social worker and is in private therapy practice in Chicago. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.