For nearly four years, I have actively engaged in dialogue with older adults, some of whom are living with HIV, all of whom lived through the epidemic. At age 17, I remember listening carefully to my friend, Victor Mendolia, as he would share stories of the early epidemic and his role in ACT UP. Since then, I have had conversations with dozens of survivors, each narrative different than the last. Through this, I have cultivated a second family -- my gay family -- composed of a diverse group of LGBTQ people, including many older gay men. This group is interested in hearing my views on HIV/AIDS and queer culture, and is a safe and affirming environment that I cherish every day.
I have just returned home from a two-week course in HIV prevention and counseling in London, England with my fellow students from NYU, and led by my mentor Dr. Perry Halkitis. In this class, we examined the behavioral, biomedical and social issues that continue to shape the AIDS epidemic in its fourth decade. Through site visits, guest lectures and insight from our professors, the class examined the United States' response to the epidemic, as compared to the United Kingdom's. The content of the course took me on an emotional journey that left me both empowered and frustrated. My perspective on emergent HIV/AIDS issues shifted, and I used this time to address an important aspect of our culture that I believe is missing.
In London, Perry and I shared similar views and fears about the current state of unity in the gay community. With the exception of the cause for marriage equality (and even this is contentious), it is rare that the gay community unifies as one. It is unusual for those who are not directly affected by an issue to actively engage in it. For those of us who are actively engaged, an inability to effectively communicate with each other has torn us apart. Many of us are quick to judge, shame, ridicule and discount a view that differs from our own. And now that I live in New York City, I have immersed myself in LGBTQ-related activism. This participation has allowed me to consider public health, political, and other issues facing LGBTQ populations that others may not be considering, and for that I am appreciative.
I now realize that support and mentorship at an intergenerational level is a gift that only a few hold. I treasure the support, guidance and insights that I receive from my mentors, including my professor Perry and Sean McKenna, one of the men depicted in Perry's book, The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience. Their experiences, including those during the darkest moments of the AIDS epidemic, have allowed me to contextualize my own life in this current place and time, some 33 years after the initial diagnoses of AIDS in the U.S.
At the same time, I and others my age have experienced less favorable interactions, namely the blame and finger-pointing associated with the choices made by a new generation of gay men around safe sex and HIV. When the previous generation attempts to modify the behaviors of the younger generation with such tactics, we are driven further and further away. Fear-based prevention tactics and shameful finger-pointing is not helpful. To claim that my generation does not think about or fear HIV is simply incorrect. Many of those in my generation do understand the consequences of becoming HIV-positive -- and they do fear it. As a result, instead of respecting us as adults who are capable of making informed decisions, the younger generation is often excluded from conversations and vilified.
Everyone knows that using a condom can prevent HIV. The problem is not hook-up applications, or lack of knowledge around HIV. If condom effectiveness was common knowledge during the epidemic, gay men would still not use them all of the time. Sex is complicated and involves an array of factors that collectively influence the risks that we are willing to take. All of these factors get in the way of integrating what we know into what we actually decide to do.
Times have surely changed, a young HIV-positive male who has been detected early and linked with treatment can expect to live a normal life expectancy. A substantial amount of older gay men have lived their entire lives within the context of the HIV epidemic. We must remember their stories, but realize that my generation will not go through the same struggles and hardships, rather we face equally unique challenges -- and those stories must be heard too.
We must bridge the gap between the generations. The voices of those in my generation matter. However, my generation will not take that first step forward until we know that the previous generation is understanding of our decisions and struggles. If young gay and bisexual men had the support and mentorship of the previous generation, I trust that we would be one step closer to winning this battle. As HIV rates continue to rise among black and Latino gay and bisexual men, the need to actively engage in cross-generational dialogue could not be greater. Together we must open our minds, bridge the intergenerational gap, and for God's sake, please put down the finger.