Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Silver Lining

In honor of World AIDS Day yesterday, here's an idea I've been thinking about for a while: the horror of AIDS was the tipping point to rapid, widespread acceptance of gay people socially and legally.

Stick with me, here. I've already mentioned that I came of age during the biggest horrors of the AIDS epidemic as experienced in this country. Before anti-retrovirals, you could watch people fall apart before your eyes. Not quickly enough to be merciful; not slowly enough to find a cure. People died gruesome deaths by the thousands. (And still are if they are poor or uninsured.)

I'm not going to pretty it up. Because most of the people dying from AIDS early on were gay, there was a massive backlash against gay people which led to, among other things, people getting fired from jobs for having AIDS/being gay. This is one reason that medical record privacy is a huge issue - your boss finding out you'd even had an AIDS test could lead to the loss of your livelihood and possibly your housing and family. (There will always be some hot button issue like it, but this particular one was pretty bad for a while and still isn't entirely overcome.)

Straight people can and do and did get AIDS but the vast majority of early deaths were gay people. So when someone died of AIDS, it was pretty obvious and the overwhelmingly likely reason that they were sick was related to their sexuality. The key thing I'm thinking is that the disease outed a lot of closet dwellers and folks on the down low. It forced family members to know something for sure that they had maybe only suspected and glossed over before; it forced them out of the closet too. More, it forced people to choose between caring for and comforting their dying loved ones or not, and do it in front of others. To be sure, some people chose "not".

Still many people chose love over fear and embarrassment. These family members said, "I'm grieving for the wasteful loss of my [brother, son, father, lover, friend] and I'm not going to hide that grief". They said, "We are NOT ASHAMED of our loved one." The biggest organized demonstrations I remember were the quilts. People would make a quilt square to commemorate their loss, join with other people who had made squares, then tour the country raising the word about the horror of the disease and the desolation it left in its wake.

The quilts started as a small thing between people who might not have had anyone else with whom to share their grief when the rest of their family or friends chose "not". They came out of their own closet and reached out to others. Like a pebble being kicked in a steep snowpack, it took a focused effort by a few and turned it into an avalanche of advocacy. (I admit that I haven't read about PFLAG and other support organizations to find out when they were founded or when they took off, I'm just going with my own selective memories.) It just makes sense that a hidden minority wouldn't gain broad acceptance without advocates from the majority. And the trigger for widespread advocacy was the horror unleashed by HIV. It has been within my short lifetime that we went from not discussing gay people publicly in a serious manner to firing people for being sick with a "gay" disease, to openly discussing gay marriage and in some cases approving it.

There is still widespread homophobia - Uganda is up to some bad, bad policy; some Iraqis are trying their hand at lynching, my own state voted that gay people don't get the same legal rights as straight people. (Fortunately my previous state dispensed with this matter years ago and many countries are even further ahead.) But for all intents and purposes, I don't see homosexuality going back in the closet or being considered unnatural. There will be oscillations in the acceptance levels, but the trend is for normalization of homosexual people; it's only a matter of time. I don't expect full global acceptance in my lifetime, but I do hope that at least gay marriage will be legal in my country by the end of the next decade. And I really think the speed with which this came about (seeming glacial as it is lived, but historically quite quick) can be traced to the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Hopefully a cure and a preventative will be found and soon. It's still the case that AIDS is fatal, it's just slower now and quality of life can be maintained a relatively high level for many of the sufferers. It is still the case that many die horribly leaving behind families and children still in need of care. I look forward to the World AIDS Day when a serious breakthrough for stopping HIV in its tracks gets announced. Because as good as it is that there is now advocacy and increased levels of civil acceptance for homosexual people, the thundercloud that generated this silver lining extracted a terrible price.

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