Monday, May 19, 2008

Remembering the War On AIDS

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

On Memorial Day, my grandmother, and anybody else she collared, would head from Louisville back to the small farming community of Litchfield, Kentucky. We'd join my aunts weeding our relatives' graves, and stick little American flags in the tombstones of dead soldiers or vets.

There'd be food afterwards, baked ham, a half dozen kinds of pickles, and such long conversations about people "before my time" I thought maybe it'd be me in the ground next, bored clear to death. Still, it wasn't so bad. I got a sense of who I was, felt connected to the land, the country and my family, all in one swoop.

Now, there's a whole new crop of corpses with graves so fresh there are no weeds. Iraq and Afghanistan are still chewing up American soldiers, while civilians there fall by the hundreds. That's war. I'd almost forgotten it was the heart of Memorial Day. Instead of just having picnics, that's what we should remember.

And not just dead grunts. We queers have our own losses. Our own fights. Stonewall was the first sally in the modern queer rights movement, though it was the fight against AIDS almost twenty years later that marked us like World War II.

By the time Tom Hanks took to the silver screen as the dignified dying homosexual in the 1993 movie, Philadelphia, two hundred thousand mostly queer Americans were dead from AIDS, a whole generation gone, and fags had been declared the national enemy.

It was to some degree understandable. Maybe you don't remember, but the disease was terrifying. People with AIDS wasted away into skeletons, had ugly lesions on their faces. They went blind, suffocated slowly from pneumonia. And fags were the first ones blamed when the press finally got around to reporting on it after years of silence.

Preachers rallied around our supposed depravity, and called AIDS the judgment of God. Fear of the Gay Plague helped jump-start the Christian Right and evangelical movements, even after journalists began to report on the "slim disease" among heterosexuals in Africa.

I guess it was a war after all -- the system fighting to have us die in silence. Queers fighting for funding and research and care. We also had to fight the intertwined enemies of homophobia and fear, which were pretty clearly reflected in Philadelphia in which Denzel Washington, the black lawyer, begins the film disgusted at homos and afraid he can get AIDS just from being in the same room with the white faggot Tom Hanks, though he ends, because it is Hollywood, understanding and respecting the dying man.

It's hard to say what the impact was. Philadelphia was one of the first films to show queers as more than limp-wristed pervs. In fact Tom Hanks was positively noble, demonstrating such a benevolent, good-humored regard towards human foibles he practically glowed. Coupled with years of actions by groups like ACT-UP, it helped move us a few steps beyond the stereotypical degenerate queens. Suddenly, we were courageous. We were united and fierce.

Now, here we are, all over national TV in Brothers and Sisters, and Ugly Betty. We're even Desperate Housewives. AIDS galvanized us, trained a generation of activists while it damn near destroyed us. It still could.

The seeds are there. Don't you wonder sometimes if changes in social consciousness would have happened as quickly without the discover of ARV cocktails in 1996? In a flash, the embodiment of gayness was no longer in ravaged skeletons, but in gym-buffed bodies more healthy looking than those of hets.

Any kind of "Gay is great" slogan would have more currency with a smiling, salubrious face. I doubt Grace would have cozied up to Will if he was sitting on the couch with an oxygen tank, an IV drip, and a face marked with lesions. Would we be marrying in California? Adopting? Hell, no.

As Memorial Day approaches, I'm grateful for our progress, but still, I remember the hundreds of thousands we've lost. Our gains sometimes feel like a cardboard set in a storm. Yes, one of the largest states in the union declared queers can tie the knot, but the State Supreme Court vote was only 4 to 3. Groups in California plan to challenge the decision. In the rest of the U.S., twenty six out of the fifty states have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

HIV is on the rise among gay men again, especially among young fags of color. How many can we stand to lose to ignorance and self-loathing? One? One thousand? A hundred thou? We count too much on ARV's. The virus could mutate and make them irrelevant. Besides, there's the tanking economy and health care costs rising as fast as those of gasoline. If we aren't vigilant, ARV's may end up out of reach, and leave us repeating history.

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