When I was a young gay kid, before I came out and understood what I was, I hadn’t had much connection with a LGBTQ community. Keep in mind that when I was a child that was late 1970s through the 1980s. The only LGBTQ people that I even knew were two women who lived together that were friends of my mother. Even with going to their houses often, I don’t think I ever understood the dynamic of their relationship. I remember hearing about the “gay cancer” and GRID when I was young and it was still distant to me. Those were dark times.
Millions of gay men were dying due to this illness and the President didn’t even use the term AIDS until 1985. It took the death of his personal long time friend Rock Hudson and the disease to start affecting the heterosexual community before those words were mentioned. It was in 1985 that the President had talked about children with AIDS being allowed or not allowed to continue public education. Reagan had even prevented the Surgeon General C. Everett Koop from speaking out about AIDS. In 1986n when he was pushed by many public officials to address the epidemic, he had expressed how he wanted it to be in line with conservative policies. However, Koop’s speech was more geared towards AIDS education.
The point being that my experiences was limited prior to coming out. When I first started going to the bars near my hometown, it was an eye opener. And that was where I met Shawn, the first man I ever had a serious relationship with. He bought me a drink and had a waiter deliver it to me. It wasn’t until later than the waiter asked me if I wanted to meet the person that bought me the drink. When he walked me to meet Shawn and our eyes met, I was hooked. We left together later and went back to his place. Not once was I ever filled with apprehension. Until that very night, I had only fooled around with a few guys and would be considered a virgin by most standards. We talked for a long time at his place and had a few drinks. We both were getting very into one another when he said he had something to tell me that could change things.
He told me that he was HIV+ and had been since 1988, about seven years at the time. He looked at me with tear filled eyes as he told me this statement. He was sharing the very darkest parts of himself to someone he had just met in a bar and hoping against hope that they wouldn’t reject him. He looked at me with anticipation, where seconds were drawn out into lifetimes. I looked at him and smiled and said it doesn’t bother me. Shocked, he asked me if I understand what he had said to me. I said, “Yes, you told me that you were HIV+.” and that I understood that it meant he had an infection that very likely would take his life, but I still didn’t care. He asked me if the idea of sex with an HIV+ person was scary, I said it was a little. But we would be using protection and always being cognizant of the risks, so that would help. And sex always has risks; you never know whom you are meeting and what they may be infected with. At least he was being honest upfront. I told him I would be tested often to ensure I always knew my status. But ultimately, it did not change my feelings for him. We spend the first night together and it was magical for me. Not once did his status effect what I felt. The next morning he asked if I would come back that night after I got off work. I said yes.
When I got to his house, he had prepared a dinner for us. We talked more and then he said he had some more things he wanted to share with me. He put on the movie “It’s My Party” and rearranged some things on his coffee table. If you haven’t seen It’s My Party, the short version is that it is a movie set during the height of the AIDS epidemic and one man who decides to host a party to tell his friends and family his decision to not let AIDS ravage him, but instead take his own life. The movie showcases people helping other AIDS patients end their lives in a dignified fashion. The rearrangement of the coffee table was to showcase Chicken Soup for the Soul books about being HIV+ and assisted suicide. At the end of the movie we talked about the books and he asked me if I felt if I would ever be able to help someone pass. Honestly I didn’t know how to respond. I told him that in my heart I wasn’t sure that I could, but we could talk about it.
We met February 14th 1996 and I moved in with him a month later. I knew this was the man I wanted to be with. I stayed with him until February 23th 2003, when he died of complications of pneumonia due to HIV. I was with him through the horrible AZT cocktail years. The night sweats and terrors, the lack of appetite and loss of weight. I watched him take handfuls of pills daily and he never lost his upbeat attitude. The seven years we were together were the most I had ever grown in my life, in a short amount of time. He taught me about LGBTQ history and to be proud of what I was.
His passing was the hardest thing I have yet to experience and it is still burned into my memory. We had moved to North Carolina the last few years of his life, he wanted to be where he felt most at home. The three years we were there I watched his health start to decline. What I did not know what that he had decided that he didn’t want to take his meds any longer. The newest cocktail that he was taking really made him feel horrible. He didn’t have energy, he didn’t want to get out of bed, and he had no interest in most things, sex included. He would go through bouts of depression and just didn’t want to deal with it any longer. After the first year living in North Carolina, I suspected he probably had stopped his meds. But he always told me that when he knew his body had enough, he would not fight it anymore. For most of those three years he was happy, we had our own place in the country with just about two acres of land. A woodlot surrounded us on all sides, so we didn’t even see our neighbors.
The last year there, I watched him lose a lot of weight quickly. Shawn was never a big guy. When I first met him, he was 5’8 and maybe all of 110 lbs., if that. The last year of his life he weighed just about 90lbs. I knew the end was coming. I came home from work to find him struggling to breath and I immediately freaked out. Hysteria swept over me and I didn’t know how to respond. All I remember was begging him not to leave me. I dropped to my knees crying holding his hand. Our eyes met, he squeezed my hand as he took his last breaths and all I could think about was that I failed him in being able to help him die on his own terms. His eyes were somber; he squeezed my hand one more time as he took his last breath. I felt a shiver go through him and me I knew he was gone. I was distraught and didn’t know what to do. I grabbed the phone, dialed 911 to get them there, and explained he was HIV+. They arrived shortly after and tried to resuscitate him. He was gone.
Saturday December 1st is World AIDS Day. It is a day of remembering those we have lost to this horrible disease. It’s a day for raising awareness of AIDS to those of us around us. In this era where we have preventative measures, we often forget that this disease still claims many people each year. At this very moment there are 36.7 million people, worldwide, living with HIV or AIDS. Since 1984, over 35 million have died from HIV or AIDS, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history. Remember that the PREP drugs are not reason to have unprotected sex and still should be used in conjunction with condoms. Don’t put your life into a drug when you are dealing with a virus that has adapted to the majority of the treatments that have come along. Your life and the lives of those you come into contact with are too precious to take chances. Be smart.
For further information about World AIDS Day please check out their link WorldAIDSDay.org. Remember al the lives we have lost to this vicious disease, for their lives have given us the advances we have now. Remember them with pride, honor, and love.