Hope on World AIDS Day 2012
Each year on December 1st, in honor of World AIDS Day, I pause to remember my dear friend Brent who died of the disease decades ago. World AIDS Day was initially conceived in 1987 by James W. Bunn and Thomas Netter to offer public information about prevention and treatment of AIDS which killed 25 million people between 1981 and 2007.
This year’s theme, “Working Together for an AIDS Free Generation” is one which I find particularly motivating given the recent decision by the people of Maine to allow for the issue of marriage licenses to same sex couples. Given what I witnessed from my friend’s struggle, I often find myself wondering if any of the AIDS related deaths could have been prevented simply by changing attitudes toward gay and lesbian people. Anyone who has looked into the eyes of a child born with HIV knows AIDS is not just a “gay disease.” However, it remains true that the majority of those who acquire it in the US are gay men. As I saw with Brent, the negative public attitudes toward these men make them particularly vulnerable to the disease.
Brent remains the one strong example of love and hope in my life. He came into my life and offered kindness, laughter, and connection during a time when I was alone in the midst of some terrible circumstances. To watch him die a month to the day before his 40th birthday was a type of heartbreak I still can’t describe in words. The most difficult thing to witness though was the guilt and shame he carried as he battled something deep within him, something he was born with that, despite valiant efforts, would not change.
Brent was never told he could have a committed, loving relationship with those to whom he felt attracted. Instead, he watched rituals created for straight youth to connect with those to whom they felt attracted. He held his secret in silence as he tried to change himself. He took on a straight person’s demeanor and lifestyle. He went to the high school prom with a beautiful girl. He watched friends’ parents meet their children’s dates at the door as they encouraged safe, healthy partnerships between their straight children. He went to the university his father chose for him and became the doctor he was supposed to become. And the entire time, he was dying from shame.
In spite of the efforts taken to change his identity, Brent could never kill the fact that he was born gay. As he watched his friends pair off in relationships and validate their love through marriage, Brent felt even more alone. Marriage with a loving, chosen partner was something his parents had, his authorities had, and his friends had. It was something he knew did not apply to him. And this began a haphazard seeking of short term relationships with men. These secret connections never satisfied his inner yearning for love in the context of his own long term, nurturing relationship. The frantic seeking this created ultimately made him sick.
If one is told he is not entitled to the relationship, the love that he craves, it makes it very difficult to commit to one individual who brings joy and love. This creates a constant seeking. As we have learned from the AIDS epidemic, this is deadly because this is where the vulnerability for infection begins.
There is hope though. I believe in the theme of World AIDS Day 2012. I believe we can have an AIDS Free Generation. On November 6, Maine citizens granted same sex couples the right to marry one loving partner. Same sex couples were finally acknowledged as equals to opposite sex couples who have long enjoyed the freedom to marry their partner in love. Marriage is a protective factor in our society. Loving, committed relationships protect our families by providing nurturing and stability. This is the cornerstone of a healthy childhood. Now, our gay and lesbian youth will be able to see examples that they too can enjoy long term love and commitment, thereby setting the foundation for an AIDS Free Generation. Please help us build from this foundation by supporting ALL loving marriages in Maine.