For the past 30 years gay men have been stuck in a constant sparring match with HIV. For the first two decades of the epidemic, it seemed that we could never measure up to the brutal brawn of this vile disease, but in the third decade of battle, it appears that we are primed for one of the greatest comebacks of all time. This potential victory comes with great loss. Some of our best men who were part of the initial rounds were knocked out of the battle far too early. Entire communities were ravaged by this ominous foe, leaving only a few where there were once many still standing. Now these veteran survivors stand along with many new fighters in the battle, but sometimes there is strife within the differing ranks.
Of course, it is to be expected that those who have been part of the fight since the beginning will have a deeper connection with, and sense of ownership over, their forever "shadow boxer." As these men tell tales of a time of more funerals than birthday parties, early meds that made you want to die, and the hope of just living another year, maybe two, it hardly seems like we are in the same battle at all.
Men like Peter Staley, Mark S. King, Jack Mackenroth, and many others paved the road for people like me and The Stigma Project's Chris Richey and Scott McPherson to enter the ring against a much lesser foe today. These veteran fighters have served as mentors to us. They are patient, forgiving, and kind as we stumble around, finding our footing in the world of activism.
But just like in any battle, some of these long-term survivors can sometimes hold a bit of resentment toward those who avoided the worst part of the fight. And this sentiment is quite understandable.
The early days of HIV are comparable to very few other epidemics in modern history. Unlike other health crises, an additional layer of shame and blame was lain atop the symptoms that accompanied the virus. These people were shunned for more than just the virus they carried and were often left alone to face the certainty of death. For the men and women who somehow outlasted their dismal prognosis, and for the many others who fortuitously avoided infection, the pain of losing so many others to the disease is still palpable.
For some, this pain has hardened into a tear-tinged anger toward younger men who are diagnosed today. It can be easy to view these newbies as privileged morons standing in stark contrast to the unknowing victims of the early years. An angry finger is wagged at the newly diagnosed 20-something who is assumed to have thrown caution to the wind, because any gay man with half a brain knows exactly how HIV is transmitted.
How could these young men not know? Or is HIV considered so easily managed that the younger generation just doesn't care anymore? The mere possibility of that question being answered affirmatively is enough to send some long-term survivors into a tirade about the horrors of HIV, complete with a list of scary (and out-of-date) medication side effects, judgmental labels, and a healthy serving of shame -- just like they received all those years ago.
Although the emotion behind these reactions is understandable, the delivery only serves to perpetuate the fear and silence that contribute to the increase in transmission rates.
As someone who is newly HIV-positive myself, I can only sympathize with long-term survivors of the disease. I dare not say I could empathize. I will never know how it feels to discover that you are carrying a death sentence in your bloodstream. I shudder to even imagine having to see my friends waste away around me, or having to experience the horrendous medication side effects that were often worse that the disease itself.
And although modern medicine has eradicated the eminent doom that so many gay men had to face in the early years, the stigma that kept so many quiet about their disease is still alive and well. It is within this stigma that you can find the roots of a myriad of psychological issues that lead young, naïve gay men to become infected today.
I know this all too well. Only a year ago I was unaware that anyone in my immediate social web was living with HIV. They were all too afraid of the judgment that comes attached to the "HIV-positive" label. It was only after I began banging my drum and calling attention to my status that so many around me revealed that they too are living with the disease.
At times, the drastically different generational experiences with HIV can make it feel almost like we are on opposite sides of the ring. But whether you are an HIV veteran or a novice, there is a common vein of shame and stigma that we all feel in the fight against the virus. The fighting style of our opponent has changed, and we new fighters must rely on the survivors of the fight to help us keep up the winning streak. Our bodies may be solid, but we need the veterans to help us new fighters strengthen something else: our voices.