A couple of days ago, Pesky Fly wrote a remarkable and moving piece for his friend T. By all accounts, T is the kind of friend everyone should have, and he just left this world a poorer place on Tuesday when he succumbed to AIDS.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to know T, so I’ll leave it to Pesky to talk about what a great guy he was. But it got me thinking about the nature of life, disease, and politics.
I came of age in the Age of AIDS. I was only thirteen or so when we first started seeing the “celebrity” AIDS deaths that made us think about this disease as a nation. I certainly wasn’t having sex in the days before AIDS, so it’s hard for me to imagine a world without this specter hanging over us.
When I got older, and it first started occurring to me that I might not end up as a rock star with a cocaine habit and two supermodels on my arms (Much like Robbin Crosby , dead of AIDS), I considered going into research science (Of course, my lack of science proficiency foiled that idea). I had read the Randy Shilts masterpiece … And the Band Played On, and all of a sudden, my heroes had gone from Eddie Van Halen and Gene Simmons to Dr. Don Francis and Dr. Jim Curran.
Francis and Curran picked up on AIDS when it was (As far as anyone knew) a mysterious pneumonia that had killed half a dozen gay men in San Francisco and half a dozen more in New York.
Those two men tried like hell to get some funding to research this new disease. These men were scientists, not ideologues. They knew that infectious disease doesn’t have a sexual preference.
But they were battling the Reaganistas, and the Reaganistas treated science as an issue of demographics. Gays don’t vote Republican often enough, ergo not their problem. In order to get what little funding they did, Francis and Curran had to perform an end run. AIDS patients often develop skin lesions called Kaposi’s Sarcoma. KS is normally benign, and simply means that seventy year old Mediterranean men would be less handsome as they went on to die of something else. When they asked for funding to research a disease hitting gays, the Reaganistas said “not our problem”. When they asked for funding to research a disease hitting elderly men, that was a demographic that Reagan wanted to help.
In America, AIDS tore through the gay population first. At the risk of having this interpreted wrong, it’s a miracle that it did. Gay people are certainly no less deserving of life than myself— I’m not saying that at all. But its early spread in America was tracked through a relatively isolated population rather than a random cross sampling of America. Had this disease been spreading among the general population, it would have been so difficult to track that we might just now be reaching the point where we can develop an HIV test. The early scientists tracking the disease were finding common traits in infected people, but it was an epidemiological cluster study that told them how it was spread and what to look for in blood samples.
I’d like to say we live in more enlightened times now, but I’m just not so sure. We all know that disease has no sexual preference, but on some level, most of America thinks “gay” when we hear “AIDS”. And sometimes, that stigma that is associated with it keeps people from reaching out to us when they need help.
Last year, the HIV infection rate remained steady among whites, but doubled in blacks. I don’t know the answer to this problem. I really don’t. I’d like to see infection rates dropping off among all races, but doubling in the black community is a terrifying prospect.
I’m very lucky. I’ve had no friends die of AIDS. My dream is that we get this thing under control enough that I never have to.