There is a special scene at the very end of the movie Longtime Companion, a character study about the effects of the early AIDS crisis on a group of gay men in New York City. In the scene, dozens upon dozens of happy, healthy gay men run from the boardwalk to the beach of Fire Island and begin dancing, socializing, and reminiscing about time spent. It is only when you recognize the face of a character who had previously died that you get the symbolism of the moment, which simply and eloquently brings home the horror of all the lives lost to the disease in the '80s and '90s.
After stumbling upon Longtime Companion one rainy afternoon on Netflix Streaming, I became a bit obsessed with the early days of HIV/AIDS. I watched documentary after documentary about that time period, and my summer beach reading has consisted solely of And the Band Played On, the Randy Shilts chronicle of the early days of the virus.
After carrying around the book for a few weeks, I began to notice how awkward the conversations around it seemed to become. Simple questions about summer reading at typical meeting places with friends and acquaintances became heavy conversations about life, death, and HIV when I began talking about the subject of the book.
The 600-page paperback I schlepped from the subway to the beach and everywhere in between was starting conversations about something that has become more and more taboo to talk about. When HIV/AIDS comes up in conversations in "polite" company, eyes start to dart around nervously. The conversations are awkward, uncomfortable, and downright weird, because we're not used to having them.
We don't talk about HIV anymore.
Sure, we may drop a comment on a blog when we see some conversation about the next breakthrough, but in our day-to-day lives HIV/AIDS is That Which Will Remain Unnamed. It's the question in the back of our minds when we start to connect with a new guy. It's the shock that comes with seeing someone actually come out as HIV-positive in their online profile. It is what's really going through the back of all of our minds as "bareback" porn enjoys a resurgence of popularity.
The era of very visible deaths and activism surrounding HIV/AIDS in the '80s and '90s has given way to a strange semi-silence about the issue outside World AIDS Day and events like the International AIDS Conference, which recently wrapped up. More controversial prevention messages are roundly criticized, and the face of HIV/AIDS has gone from images of lesion-riddled, dying gay men in the '80s to images of men who are healthy, fit, and ready to take on the world with one pill a day.
In the era of HIV-positive advocates who are more visible than ever, perhaps it has become a bit politically incorrect to make the statement that despite the fact that people are living longer and healthier lives than ever before, HIV is still a disease that you do not want. It vastly complicates the lives of those affected by it. And, yes, people are still dying from AIDS-related complications when the virus progresses beyond control. It's an inconvenient truth, but a truth nonetheless.
A great deal of HIV-positive people keep their statuses private to avoid the very real stigma that still comes with being "poz." A great deal of HIV-negative people keep their statuses to themselves to avoid any perceived sense of superiority in regard to vigilant safe-sex habits or, for more people than care to admit, the simple fact that they "lucked out" after more than one slip-up.
When we avoid talking about the issue of HIV/AIDS, we push it back into the shadows. In those shadows is where HIV/AIDS does more damage than it can ever do to a community that is vigilant about addressing both the virus and their experiences surrounding it, regardless of HIV status. It's time to start speaking up again.
That's real talk.
Real Talk is a biweekly column focusing on politics, pop culture, and lifestyle from a gay perspective. Rob Smith is an LGBT activist, writer, lecturer, and proud provocateur living in New York City. Find him at robsmithonline.com and @robsmithonline.
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