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The Coming Epidemic: Is HIV Really What Killed Spencer Cox?

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Linebacker Manti Te'o isn't the only man with a dubious online love interest. I have an imaginary Facebook boyfriend, too. I'm pretty sure mine is an actual person. Felipe and I both like to post YouTube videos in an invitation-only Facebook group for gay men who are into esoteric, heterodox pop music -- twee, shoegazey, alt/rock electro/techno small-label releases. He "liked" my Magnetic Fields post and replied by posting music by the Gothic Archies and Future Bible Heroes. He knew about Stephin Merritt's side bands! Conversation ensued.

Felipe's eyes are dark brown -- syrupy coffee, melty chocolate. They stare out at me from his profile pic. But what I fell for was his writing: strings of perfectly spelled, grammatically unassailable sentences, at once clever, subtle, astute, modest and wry. Prose about New Wave bands only a book editor like me would find erotic. By the third properly placed semicolon I was smitten.

He lives in San Diego, and we have never spoken to or seen each other. No phone calls, no Skype, certainly no impulsive cross-country flights. Instant messages mostly; an occasional text or e-mail. Flirtation but no dirty talk. Our affections are as chaste as a Doris Day song.

I prefer it this way.

In the last six months I have buried three friends. The last one, Spencer Cox, was a comrade-in-arms from ACT UP. Spencer was a brilliant self-taught scientist who barged his way into the federal medical establishment. His design of the efficacy protocol for an early protease inhibitor led to its speedy but safe approval by the FDA. The descendents of that drug are today keeping millions of people with HIV alive worldwide. He was also quick-witted, droll, very funny and magnetic, qualities that earned him the moniker "the Dorothy Parker of HIV." He had Facebook friends he'd never met, people who signed up just to read his keenly honed repartee. The line to get into his memorial service at the Cutting Room on Jan. 20 stretched down East 32nd Street from Park Avenue South to Madison Avenue. He was 44.

His death has become a touchstone of mourning for a generation of gay men -- and women -- both HIV-positive and HIV-negative, who have lived through the unrelenting havoc of AIDS. It led me to at last compile the names I've scribbled on slips of paper, the names I never erased from old address books or deleted from cell phones, the names tucked away in my mind for two and a half decades. The list contains two boyfriends, two lovers and 45 friends, erstwhile enemies, colleagues and mentors who have died of AIDS. Spencer's was the 50th name.

But Spencer's death is more complicated. He willfully stopped taking the meds that he himself had agitated for. He was despairing and broke. He had also had a nasty crystal meth habit.

My generation, which continues to stare down HIV, is facing a new plague -- the one that likely killed Spencer Cox. As yet unnamed, it manifests in aimlessness, depression, broken relationships, substance abuse, unsafe sex and suicide. I know because the men and women at the pre-memorial "celebration" of Spencer's life, my old ACT UP buddies, told me about it when I asked, simply, "How have you been?" Their stories of addiction, hopelessness, resentment and fear gushed out, although I hadn't seen many of them in a decade or two. They were hungry for someone to listen -- someone like me, who understands what they are going through because I am going through it with them.

Paul was the first of my boyfriends to die. I loved Paul inexhaustibly, feverishly; it was the kind of love only an 18-year-old can manifest. With each successive relationship -- John, Marc, James -- the temperature of my love grew cooler, my desire to love more equivocal, my ability to love more diminished.

That's why Felipe, my Facebook not-boyfriend, is perfect for me. I can cyber-adore the poetry in his writing, but I don't have to live with him, to argue with him, to sleep with him, to take care of him, to love him, to look back into his bottomless brown eyes. He disappears when I log out for the night. I've never asked about his sero-status, and I'm never going to. And I will never have to grieve for him until I'm shattered, even if it turns out I've been catfished like Manti.

ACT UP -- and Spencer -- proved that we could fight successfully for what we needed to save our own lives. Now we are again facing an epidemic without a name, an epidemiology, a diagnostic test, an established mode of transmission or a cure. Like HIV did, it hides inside us, destroying our health, wrecking us before we even know it's there. And as in the early '80s, before AIDS was called AIDS and when HIV was just a gleam in a scientist's eye, no one is talking about it.

Ironically, Spencer himself, always prescient, was the first to identify and write about the problem, back in 2006, before his own life veered off course. And two of my most intrepid ACT UP compatriots used their eulogies not just as a salute but as a call to arms.

Today those of us who tackled the AIDS epidemic head-on are older and wiser, but many of us, including me, are burnt out. Are we up for yet another struggle> Silence, it seems, at least in Spencer's case, did indeed equal death.