On World AIDS Day: All I Want Is a Cure and My Friends Back

Terrance Heath

Today is World AIDS Day, and while I’d like to write something about it, I can’t come up with anything better than a post I wrote a few years ago. That’s because so much has changed since then, for better and for worse.

The numbers are more encouraging now than they were three yearse ago, with a drop in the number of new HIV infections. But the numbers are still unacceptably high.

Since 1981 when 5 gay men in the United States were first identified with AIDS, the epidemic has claimed the lives of more than 25 million people so far across the globe.

There are 33 million people living with HIV around the world. Two-thirds live in sub-Saharan Africa where AIDS is the leading cause of death. However, thanks to better access to HIV treatment, more people are living longer, healthier lives and fewer are dying from AIDS-related illnesses.

Experts believe in recent years there has been a drop in the numbers of people who are becoming newly infected with HIV. However, numbers are still very high with 2.7 million new infections in 2007 – that’s 7,400 people every day, and 45% of these are young people aged 15 to 24 years.

As someone who spent years doing HIV/AIDS prevention education, the eight years of the Bush administration were particularly demoralizing. Though Bush’s international AIDS relief efforts have been praised by some, the administration’s abstinence-only requirement effectively prevented prevention educatoion in Africa and other areas by prohibiting prevention educators from dicussing condom use.

The consequences of abstaining from reality when it comes to HIV/AIDs prevention are measured in the lives of people who might have been spared infection if they had been fully educated on how to protect themselves and their partners.

Still, right here in Washington DC, where the HIV/AIDS epidemic has become “the Katrina of Public Health” the Senate is debating a health care reform bill that restores abstinence-only funding (albeit not to the same levels as the Bush era) — despite study after study and panel after panel of experts all saying that abstinence -only fails to reduce sexual activity, and a more recent study shows that STD infections are still on the rise in the U.S.

 “Chlamydia and gonorrhea are stable at unacceptably high levels and syphilis is resurgent after almost being eliminated,” said John Douglas, director of the division of sexually transmitted diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have among the highest rates of STDs of any developed country in the world,” Douglas added in a telephone interview.
The administration of President Barack Obama has signaled a willingness to move away from so-called abstinence-only sex education approaches promoted by his predecessor, George W. Bush, and conservative state and local governments.

Several studies have shown such approaches do not work well and that it is better to encourage abstinence while also offering children and teens information about how to protect themselves from diseases as well as pregnancy.


“We haven’t been promoting the full battery of messages,” Douglas said. “We have been sending people out with one seatbelt in the whole car.”

It seems we’re still willing to keep doing the same as we’ve always done. It’s disheartening to think that we still must give even a symbolic nod to people whose agenda has not only been proven wrong but devestating in its capacity to endanger so many lives.

On that level it becomes exteremely personal to me, when I think of the lives that have touched mine and have been lost. So, in 2009, I say the same thing I said in 2006: All I want is a cure and my friends back.

There’s a t-shirt in my closet at home, black with white lettering, that bears the words above. It expresses the sentiment that’s in my heart today. It’s World AIDS Day, and a day on which I can’t help thinking about all the people who have been lost; the ones close to me and the people never knew but who meant something to someone.

It was on my mind this morning when I picked my son up and carried him downstairs, and it was on my mind when I kissed him and my husband goodbye and made my way out the door. It wasn’t until I was on the train that it truly hit me. I was sitting, reading and listening to music, and the next song that played was Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart for a While,” written before his own death from lung cancer.

Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath

Keep me in your heart for a while

If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less

Keep me in your heart for a while

When you get up in the morning and you see that crazy sun

Keep me in your heart for a while

There’s a train leaving nightly called when all is said and done

Keep me in your heart for a while

Sitting there on the train I did something I almost never do. I wept. I closed my book, bowed my head, covered my face so that no one would see, and quietly wept. Sentimental, I know. But I couldn’t help it.

I don’t remember a time without AIDS in my life as an out gay man. I came out around the age of 13, just when word of the epidemic was beginning to break. By the time I went to college I was already losing friends to the disease. For a while, I think I was going to funerals and memorials more often than my parents were. I spent much of my time in college doing volunteer work on HIV/AIDS education and prevention, and spent several years after graduation working on HIV/AIDS issues.

Ric was the first person living with AIDS that I met, and he was the first friend I lost to the disease. I’ve written about his death before, and what I learned from him about courage, honesty, and love — both in how he lived with his illness and in how he finally chose to leave this world. There’s now a clinic named after him at AIDGwinnett. I learned so much from the others too. Duane and Marc were a couple, both ill, and though they argued and fought passionately sometimes, they never appeared to stop loving each other, and now I think of that as a kind of lesson about the things that love can weather and still remain. They’re both gone now; one left shortly after the other. Neal and Alex were my fraternity brothers, and from each of them I learned strength and perseverance.

I think about them, and countless others today, and I can’t help asking “Why them, and not me?” I don’t have an answer for that, but today is a day that — as I said above — want them back.

And it’s not just the people I knew. I think of people like Joseph Beam, Marlon Riggs, and Essex Hemphill, whose words and work kept me sane at a time when it was difficult to stay that way, and helped me feel less alone. I think of Nkosi Johnson and Pedro Zamora, both examples of how one person can touch countless others and make a huge impact.

And there are so many others. Given the politics behind the epidemic — manifest today in “abstinence only” policies, etc. — it’s odd that my take on it is so personal, but it’s on a day like today that I feel my own losses to the epidemic most deeply. And I know those losses are multiplied by millions the world over. I know the stats.

People living with HIV and AIDS – 40.3 million

Adults – 38.0 million

Women – 17.5 million

Children under 15 -2.3 million

New HIV cases in 2005 – 4.9 million

Adults – 4.2 million

Children under 15 – 700,000

AIDS deaths in 2005 – 3.1 million

Adults – 2.6 million

Children under 15 – 570,000

Total HIV cases to date – 64.3 million

Total AIDS deaths to date – 23.1 million

But the numbers are just numbers to me until I can multiply them by the lives of the people I knew, and the loss I feel in my own heart. When I do, I know the truth is that we all have AIDS.

So, my hope and wish for everyone today is the same as what I felt and wanted this morning on the train; a world without AIDS; a cure and our friends back, and our mothers, fathers, sons, daughter, husbands, wives, neighbors and loved ones — all back. When I imagine it, it reminds me of the last scene in Longtime Companion, when a few of the main characters are walking on a beach and wondering what it will be like on the day there’s a cure. In the next frame, all of the people lost to the epidemic suddenly appear at the end of the beach and run towards them for a fantastic reunion. And then just as quickly, they’re gone and the three characters continue up the beach alone.

I know the reality is going to be nothing like that. There may come a day when there’s a cure, but there won’t be any reunions; at least not the kind where get to hug and touch and hear the voices and see the faces of the ones who’ve been gone so long. Still, the best way remember them and honor them is to continue working for a cure, and for real prevention.

So, today I remember Ric, Marc, Duane, Neal, Alex and all the others. I’ll probably cry again before the day is over. And I still want them back. I know that can’t happen, so I keep them in my heart and keep working for the day when no one else has to die from this disease and no one has to lose a loved one to it. Ever again.

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