Growing Up Without AIDS

What I remember most about AIDS growing up is the silence.

In Memphis, where more than one friend actually went to ex-gay camp, I don’t remember hearing much about the disease that has now killed over 30 million people. To be fair, I also don’t remember any hateful statements about how AIDS cures homosexuality. No, I just remember silence.

Kids can learn a lot from silence. In this case, I learned that HIV and AIDS are very shameful things. You could contract HIV if you did something bad. If you promised early on to be good – preferably through a contract promising abstinence till marriage – you’d probably be fine.

Fast forward twenty years. I now live in Washington, DC – a city ravaged by AIDS. As of 2008, 16,513 DC residents had HIV/AIDS, which is approximately 3.2% of the population.

I’ve learned that HIV/AIDS affects as many women as it does men; that the disease can be passed on to children; that it has produced millions of orphans; that it often results from rape.

I’ve also learned that Memphis wasn’t the only place where people seemed silent on the issue. Even in DC, it took two years living here to learn about the high rate of HIV/AIDS – and that only happened because the global summit just took place.

It shocked and pained me to see silence dramatized in The Normal Heart, which played at Arena Stage leading up to the summit and showed the bitter fights and closed doors surrounding the first years of the AIDS crisis. In my ignorance, it surprised me to hear so much anger expressed; and it surprised me when suddenly I was angry, too.

I was angry at silence – such a cowardly thing. I was angry I was still learning so much about AIDS, when its discovery surrounded the years of my childhood like a dark cloud. I was angry with death and how counter it is to everything human and divine. I was angry at how angry I was.

But people should be mad, right? In my home state, the throngs are crying out on behalf of Chick-fil-a right now. Some of the same people who teach silence on AIDS are currently displaying the ultimate hypocrisy in trying to block a mosque while standing up boldly for their favorite Christian fast food chain. These are the fights in which we invest our time?

Would Jesus invest his time in these fights? Would he vehemently defend your right to (factory farm raised, inhumanely treated) chicken? He was too busy healing lepers. And that’s where the true shame is in all of this.

Elton John delivered one of the keynote addresses at the International AIDS Conference last week. Here’s part of what he said:

I decided to volunteer and deliver meals to people who were terminally ill, basically, and who wouldn’t open their doors; or we’d knock on the doors, and we’d leave the food outside, and then you’d walk down the path and you’d hear the door open and the food go inside the house.

People were suffering from enormous pain, and they had Kaposi’s. They didn’t want to be seen. It was like delivering meals to lepers, and in fact that situation really hasn’t changed as far as the stigma goes.

My heart breaks for the people still affected by the stigma I saw expressed in the quiet church services of my childhood. Instead of letting that stigma fester in our silence, we should be working it away with our own hands. Perhaps being busy doing good would keep our ignorance at bay.

For those of you reading this who have already taken up the cause of AIDS, and who feel angry that so few people have joined you, I beg you to remember that not everyone has turned a blind eye. After all, you can’t turn a blind eye from something you never saw in the first place.

Many of us too young to remember the AIDS crisis, who never saw “the walking dead” in our communities or felt the terror of the early 80s, don’t know very much. Some of us wrongly believe that merely surviving via a lifetime of expensive, toxic medication counts as a cure. Please talk to us.

And for those of you reading this who ignore AIDS because of the stigma, who continue to teach children that silence is best when dealing with lepers, and who perpetuate the quiet anxiety of the ill, perhaps it is time to come to terms with what is most shameful. Repent and be saved, as they say.

(Photo: Sunset Parkerpix)

3 Responses to “Growing Up Without AIDS”
  1. Mary says:

    I’m reposting on Facebook!

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  1. […] literal and figurative, and try not to know too many sick people at a time. We raise children who don’t know what AIDS is except perhaps as punishment for shameful behavior. Some of us learn to love only halfway, because […]

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