August 12, 2010

The Gay Disease

I always thought of AIDS as a “gay disease.” Whenever I went to a site for LGBT youth, I would see a prominent sexual health section with information about HIV/AIDS. This was my first sexual education, other than questions my parents answered (one being “What is oral sex?”) I recieved decent, though heteronormative, sexual education in middle school. I learned about STDs through pictures in my high school’s health class. I watched a memorable video about abstinence in religion class. (Its message against cohabitation and reasonable defense of waiting till marriage has stuck with me, it's line that "condom's are a joke" did not.) If I heard about AIDS in school sex education, it was presented the same way as LGBT issues. As in: We know that some of yall are LGBT or might have experience with HIV/AIDS, but we don’t have time to cover everything. You’re on your own.

The secrecy surrounding HIV/AIDS determined me to find out more. I tried to volunteer at the San Antonio AIDS Foundation (SAAF) in middle school. By then I was aware of my LGBT identity and had connected HIV/AIDS to it. I was too young. In the middle of high school, I donated a fraction of my birthday money to SAAF. By senior year I had participated in a variety of service projects to fill my school requirement, none of which had any effect on me. I contacted the SAAF again. After a brisk training (watching dated anti-sexual harassment and fire safety videos) I was a volunteer. The rest of the story is what college admission essays are made of.

I volunteered at the SAAF for only seven hours, including training. I popped into the SAAF less than an hour a week for a semester. I realized that service isn’t all making copies and playing with dogs at the pound. I couldn’t stomach this kind of service for very long. My main task was serving food to people on the verge of death. Most either spoke in inanities accompanied by inappropriate expression or looked permanently terrified.

One man was lucid enough to be my friend. My Catholic school uniform put him at ease. I was an innocent receptacle of his recycled stories. I reminded him of his youth: playing baseball, his first girlfriend. This man, like many of the people at SAAF, was black. This wouldn’t be significant except that since I lived on the Northside of San Antonio and went to Catholic school, seeing a black person was an unusual event. The only time I saw more than a couple of black people at once was at the SAAF. I stopped volunteering for a couple weeks. When I returned, I didn’t see my wheel-chair bound friend in the dining hall. His obituary, along with many others, was in a glass case. Growing up, I was sheltered from death. Other than my great-grandparents and opa, I didn’t personally know dead people. As a kid, I thought that the death of these ancient relatives was inevitable, a non-event. This man seemed healthy. His death seemed sudden, though I knew it was years in the making.

I have other memories of the SAAF. Wheeling a man to the outside porch so he could smoke. I put the wrong side of the cigarette in his mouth. I ashed and lit for him too because his hands didn’t work. He was good-natured and gracious. We had a functional, though mundane, conversation. I fed another man who kept repeating that he liked black guys. I told him I liked them too, sheepishly trying to hide my discomfort. Another man had the stoic face and tattoos of a contraband leader. The nurse ordered him in Spanish to open wide so I could spoon food into his mouth. I went once to a patient's room. It was dark except for a minature TV perched on a tall shelf. Her bed was lined with pictures of family, friends, and what I assumed was the healthy patient. My hands shook as I spooned the food. This woman had one expression (terror in the face of death) and four words (the food is good.) I took it for granted that her and I could never be friends, could never have a conversation.

All these experiences led me to believe that AIDS wasn’t what you saw in Rent. It killed people, yes, but it also took away their brains and marked their bodies. It forced them to tell old stories and watch TV all day. It made them the antithesis of sexy. Due to advances in medication, people newly infected can escape this fate with enough money or public assistance. Yet the regimen is exacting, the stigma still acute.

I admitted in my previous post that I am no sexual health saint. I do what I can to stay safe and keep up to date on my facts. I won’t engage in certain sexual behaviors. I try to keep my partner count low. In line with my Catholic education, I err on the side of prudishness and serial monogamy.

As most people know, when I came to Duke I became trained as an HIV counselor. (Don’t worry; I don’t remember what people tell me in my sessions.) I was terrified at first of giving positive results. I thought the person would be angry with me. I have since realized that I am still the innocent girl in the Catholic school uniform. I didn’t give anyone the disease. I still listen to stories, but now I can help people avoid life as a hospice patient.

Some of my fellow counselors are black women. Some of them, like me, made it clear that their identity was why they got involved with Know Your Status. I’m not going to naively say that HIV/AIDS will bring together the LGBT and black communities, but it is an opportunity.
A couple days ago I watched a movie called The New Age of HIV/AIDS, which focused on North Carolina. I learned a lot about the spread of HIV/AIDS on college campuses and in rural areas. I was ecstatic to learn that research is being done at Duke that might lead to a vaccine within 15 years.

I care about HIV/AIDS because I’m gay. While HIV/AIDS is not a gay disease it is woven deep inside of the gay community. I believe no one should be alienated from the sexual health information they need. Condoms, lube or dental damns (I plan on stocking up), information about the risk of certain behaviors or the disease itself are available on campus. An LGBT sexual health related event is in the works for this coming year. I don’t know what it’s like to be personally affected by the disease. But I have seen HIV/AIDS kill people, and I have seen people narrowly escape it.

For reasons I don't understand, sex is endowed with negative externalities. These externalities are impossible for me to forget (even at the most inappropriate times.)


  1. I really enjoyed reading about your personal experience as a volunteer with an AIDS organization. This is really great. I also glad to read your line, "All these experiences led me to believe that AIDS wasn’t what you saw in Rent... It made them the antithesis of sexy." I think the harsh reality of disease is something that really shouldn't ever be downplayed, and I really appreciated you mentioning this here.

  2. Wow Veronica, this was absolutely amazing. Also, I agree with Megan about the Rent line. I feel like I learn so much about both your life and any given subject. The snippets of stories that you shared were absolutely heart-wrenching, and at the same time, I loved every minute of it.

    I love how you emphasize that while HIV/AIDS is not an LGBT disease there is a certain heartstring that it pulls with everyone in that community and the AFAM community. Common ground is where the heart of the fight against AIDS lies. I'm also ecstatic to hear about the vaccine, if it proves to be true, I will truly and deeply love this city and the things that it can create.

  3. Veronica, like always, your posts hit right to the heart of it. I had similar experiences working at an HIV shelter in New Orleans last summer, and your comment about 'taking away peoples brains and marking them' really struck home for me. I agree with Megan, it's definitely something that should not be downplayed. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences at SAAF.

  4. 1. Your parents sound awesome. Extra points for anyone who explains oral sex to their kid, that's above and beyond normal parental duties!
    2. You are awesome. It takes so much guts to look something like AIDS in the face and do what you can to help out even if it's not glamorous. I never grew up with the idea that AIDS was a gay disease, and since learning that many people think of it that way I always am reminded of how sad it is that a fatal disease is one of the major things that unifies the community. Can't wait to see the day that the cure unifies everyone.

  5. Why did you never tell me about this before? I'm so curious to know more. Also, at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Durham this week, they screened "Gen Silent" which I didn't get the chance to see, but I think would be great to show at a movie event.