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Universal Health Care and the New America (with Respect to Harvey Milk)

Posted: 11/29/08 12:15 AM ET

This is the column my parents will wish I didn't write.

I should first begin by warning you I just came home from viewing Milk. We gay people often think our history is just discos, drag queens and casual sex. But long ago, in a galaxy not so far away named San Francisco, there was a man named Harvey Milk. Milk stood up for all of us, and made this country a safer place for gays and lesbians. He made sure that discrimination against homosexuals did not occur under his watch in California by running a precise, passionate, and very well planned campaign, almost knocking on every single door of every single person in the State. Milk firmly believed that once people knew a gay person, it would be difficult to vote against us.

Where is our Harvey Milk now?

Why didn't our current gay and lesbian leaders take a page from Milk's handbook and stand in the face of those who oppose us and not back down? Why did we only preach to the choir when Proposition 8 was being campaigned around the State? Why didn't we, like Milk would have done, go to the churches that discriminated against us and show them that we count, that we are humans just like them, and convince them one at a time if we had to, that we, too, are entitled to marriage.

Instead we got a commercial that apparently went unwatched.

What happened to our leaders in the HIV community? When did it become politically correct not to stand up for what you believe in, no matter whom you pissed off? Why have HIV related health care issues seem to have become last decade's news? Why aren't our leaders kicking down doors in Washington to fight for more funding because more and more people need those precious dollars everyday? Why have we become complacent with the current status quo of holding the disease at bay, when so few can actually afford the treatments, deal with the side effects without a problem, or even begin to have the access to decent care.

Like Milk, I can point the finger at myself. There was a time when I didn't, no wait, couldn't, talk about my boyfriend, David, and his illness. We lived in fear -- fear that he would get deported, and fear that he would lose his health insurance. And I lived in fear as a gay man that I would be cut off from my family if I shared our secret. I lived with this same fear when I knew I was getting sick myself. I thought people would turn against me and would just let me die alone.

It turned out wrong -- for me, at least. Plenty of people do not have anywhere to go and do die alone -- from a variety of causes. I was instantly proved wrong the second I got honest with myself, and then got honest with everyone around me. For you see, after you tell your mother you have AIDS, it is truly downhill from there. Once you know you have Mom on your side, you know you will not be fighting this alone. I then made sure I told everyone that mattered in my life, for I did not want them to find out second-hand. I wanted them to hear it directly from my own mouth, and ask whatever questions they had. And you know what happened -- there was a non-stop parade of people in and out of my hospital room showing their support, so many that the nurses just started pointing and saying, "He is in there."

I realize now that in spite of whatever perceived imperfections my life may have from time to time, that I am one incredibly lucky and loved guy. I also have friends and family behind me, no matter what time is it, to help me through this crisis one calls "Living with AIDS". I also have health insurance and a family that can help me, should the need arise.

But what about my brothers and sisters with HIV that do not have this support? What about the individuals without health insurance that get forced to deal with a bankrupt and overly bureaucratic county health care program that barely works when you have the most minor of problems.

People argue that we cannot have national health insurance because they fear it will cause long lines and reduce care. God, how I wish Milk was around to help us through this one. He would have pointed to Europe, stating their high quality of care, the equal access for all, their lower infant mortality rates, and higher quality of life. The United States, in spite of our bragging about being the richest nation ever, ranks 37th on the global infant mortality rate chart - beneath France, United Kingdom, Sweden, Czech Republic, Norway, and Ireland, to name only a few.

As Thomas Jefferson stated that all men were truly created equal, then why can't all men have equal access to health care?

If we were truly pro-life, why don't we care about the life after it has been born?

Back to that comment about my Mom, since telling her my diagnosis, she has been great, amazing beyond all expectations even. She went from being a woman who never wanted to deal with this disease, to being proud of her son who speaks out on behalf of those who cannot. I am proud to say that my family are my number one fans, and, honestly, I would have not guessed that ten years ago.

In Milk, he starts to talk about his boyfriends who committed suicide because of living in the closet, how he felt he betrayed them by not being strong enough to stand up for his own lifestyle. Milk felt he had no other choice but to speak. I started speaking out, rather innocently in fact, when I was written about in the New York Times regarding a project I created for the residents of the San Antonio AIDS Foundation. I was honest with my status, and the writer included it in the piece. People who knew me but didn't "know" were amazed. I was told that it was a beautifully written story -- and that "I had the balls to come out in the New York Times." Honestly, it would have taken more balls not to say it, for you see Mom already knew, and speaking freely with the Times was part of the "downhill."

I have seen too many people die because they were afraid to speak out and ask for help. I had a friend die because he was afraid to change doctors for fear of hurting that doctor's feelings. I had another friend die because his family did not accept his lifestyle.

If we want change to come to America, we must be the ones that change, not just the people that get paid to work on the Potomac. We must fight every single day for this change. We must fight for all Americans to be treated equally on every single level of their lives -- and this must include health care.

Throughout the movie, Milk kept getting death threats. I had my own Milk moment recently after a radio interview. I was on the Cable Radio Networks, discussing what it was like to be a person living with AIDS in America in 2008. The very next day I received a call - it came up "private" on my caller ID. It was some woman, I believe her name was Dolores, and she said she was from the State of California Health Department. She told me that a recent sexual partner of mine tested positive and that I had to test in thirty days or she would call my employer. I laughed and said, "Well you are assuming I have an employer, for you are talking to him." She was to call in thirty days and make sure I tested. She never called back. Just to be sure, I contacted the California AIDS Department, and they backed up my fears - it was a crank call. The County makes those calls and never, ever without giving out phone numbers to call for more assistance.

My Milk moment. The part my parents did not know about until they read this, but part of the process. I now look forward to the next one, because, I know, change isn't going to happen to our health care without pissing dozens of people off.

So, to that woman named Dolores, and others just like her -- I say bring it on -- I await my next Milk moment with pride.


 

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