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At 15, I Was Sure Being Gay Meant I'd Get AIDS and Die

At 15, I Was Sure Being Gay Meant I'd Get AIDS and Die


In the 1980s a gay Southern teenager had few resources to help him understand anything about his sexuality. Now he's helping those who were once in his shoes.

Rock Hudson died the day I turned 15. Seeing as how I really didn’t know who he was, it didn’t make that much of an impression at first. What I came to find, via the Enquirer at the 7-Eleven next door to the motel my mother managed, was that he was an old movie star and had died of AIDS. This being before we bought our first VCR out of the trunk of some guy’s car at the Paris, Texas, Wal-Mart, I was not familiar with his movies that I would later come to love, like Pillow Talk. As far as I was concerned, he was simply that old dude who kissed Linda Evans in the barn on Dynasty and she had freakedout when he died — and not just because of the hay in her hair.

Living somewhere near the buckle of the Bible Belt, I didn’t have much information about AIDS other than it was bad and you got it because you were gay. Thanks to the Reagan White House and its refusal to discuss this disease, I thought you could get AIDS just by being gay, like black people and sickle cell anemia. What did I know? My family was encased so far inside our Southern Baptist bubble that to this day my parents have never actually had “that talk” with me.

I suffered in silence, terrified that I would get AIDS and die, based solely on the fact that I knew I was gay. I hadn’t kissed or even held hands with anyone at that point. My family is Southern Baptist, but much more 19 Kids and Counting than Preachers' Daughters. The most daring thing I did in 1985 was watch 14 of the 17 hours of Live Aid on MTV.

In this pre-Internet era, I could not find much information about AIDS until I did a research paper in senior English in 1988. I asked my teacher to “assign” me homosexuality for my topic so I could find out something about it, me, and whatever. In a town with one red light, my only research option was the library.

Can you guess how many books there were on homosexuality in the Tylertown, Miss., High School library? Other than the Encyclopedia Britannica, exactly zero. I was “forced” to do this “stupid paper” on this “crazy topic” by that darn Miss Boyd and discovered that I really wasn’t the only oddball in the world.

And God bless her ahead-of-the-curve thinking, she gave me a 96 instead of 100 because “you spent too much time equating homosexuality with AIDS and that’s not accurate.” I will forever be thankful for Nola Faye Boyd, God rest her beautiful soul. I wonder if she knew she was the first person I came out to, unofficially or not.

And the reason this is even on my mind was an article in Vanity Fair magazine about the remake of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. The author asked, Why this piece? Why now? And as a member of the board of directors of Academy of Friends, living in the shadow of San Francisco, I can tell you the average person simply doesn’t think AIDS remains a real threat; that drugs and treatments have essentially eliminated the problem of HIV and AIDS. And that’s not accurate.

My organization raises money to award grants to groups who provide services or education for those living with HIV or AIDS in the Bay Area, and this year’s beneficiaries are doing wonderful work: PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support), Project Open Hand (meals for the critically ill), Shanti (HIV/AIDS support and counseling), LGBTQ Connection (Napa Valley Youth Program), Maitri (residential end of life care), and Clinica Esperanza (HIV/AIDS services for Latinos). I’m glad I can do my part to support a community that I’ve never really embraced.

But this embrace includes a suggestion to reengineer our thinking. Yes, there have been advances in treatment and people are living longer than ever, but that doesn’t mean the threat is gone. It may no longer be considered an epidemic, but it is a problem that needs attention. Education is our greatest weapon, but so often we don’t want to talk about “depressing” things like AIDS; it interrupts our party. We can’t allow ourselves to be cavalier in our attitudes and actions, pushing HIV and AIDS to the periphery.

I’ve been reading Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace? and I’ve realized that I haven’t offered much grace to my fellow LGBTQers and I am not proud of that. At various points in my life I was, for all practical purposes, a homophobic homosexual. I feared homosexuals. I was taught to hate gays, at home, at church, at school, at work. I was taught to hate myself. As someone who tried to do everything to the best of my ability, I hated on an Olympic level, mostly internally, but hate of any kind is unhealthy.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a phrase that’s been used by self-professed Christians who swear they don’t hate anybody. And I believe that’s true. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it is indifference. I feel the church has been, at best, indifferent toward LGBTQ people.  And it seems millennials and many Gen-Xers are indifferent to the threat of AIDS.

If we love ourselves enough to fight for equality, we should love ourselves enough to be careful, educate each other, and not make anyone feel like a tired old activist just because they think safe sex is smart. The Normal Heart is still relevant and necessary, and not solely because it stars Matt Bomer.

Can we all agree to try to love and support each other in this broken world? ? I’ll be the first to try. As a gay Christian, I can tell you Jesus was a radical thinker and focused on love, and that’s what he would want. And if you don’t agree, can we at least discuss it? I love a good discussion … with brunch. My treat.

DUSTIN THOMPSON is an author and blogs at Penny Loafers at the Rodeo, but because he enjoys having food, clothing and shelter, he also works as a healthc are manager for the federal government. He lives in Menlo Park, Calif., and serves on the board of directors of the Academy of Friends.

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