December 1st: Today is a very special day. I’m not talking about the first day to break into those advent calendars for those who celebrate Christmas nor the last day of classes before finals for those of us in school. Today is World AIDS Day.
At first glance, strangers wouldn’t guess that HIV/AIDS was a disease that would impact me–directly or indirectly. It’s 2017 and I’m a middle-class, caucasian, American, heterosexual female in my mid-20s with privilege (education, resources, community, money) coming out the ying-yang in comparison to others. I’m not a young, homosexual male, living in Southern California in the 1980s, having unprotected sex. But, my uncle was.
My Uncle Brian was the life of the party. He was the epitome of a class clown. He was the master of elaborate gag gifts. He was an incredible chef. He was a people-person. He loved a good Hawaiian shirt, especially when worn in Hawaii. He had incredible friends. My Uncle Brian was “my person”.
I didn’t even know my uncle was gay until I was in middle school. I grew up with my uncle’s partners being part of my life, but I never knew they were his partners. I thought he had really good friends who would vacation with us and come to our family events and who would buy me presents. Being gay wasn’t something I understood. I didn’t get it because it was never a point of conflict. Gay was just a thing. Akin to being white or having brown eyes or having attached earlobes. It really didn’t matter to me as long as that person was happy. So, when I was 11 and on my way home from a Christmas family reunion at my uncle’s home in West Hollywood (now it all makes sense), I sat in the backseat staring out the windows and asked my parents if Uncle Brian was gay. They replied, “yes”. I think I probably shrugged and continued staring out the window. Nothing changed. No big deal. But, what I’m getting at, is my uncle never told me he was gay. He was my person and he didn’t tell me. I don’t blame him, I blame society.
Flash forward a few years, and I’m in high school where I’m heavily involved in my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance: participating in the Day of Silence, protesting Proposition 8, volunteering for LGBTQIA events. Then, it’s the summer of 2009 and I’m studying to raise my SAT scores from good to amazing. And, it’s then, that I had an eery feeling. My intuition told me something was wrong with my person. I spent the day trying to contact my Uncle Brian, only to find that he was in the Intensive Care Unit at a top Los Angeles hospital. I dropped everything and drove four hours to find him gasping for air, his body consumed by Pneumocystis pneumonia, among other infections. My uncle was frail, but still managed to smile and open his eyes wide when I walked into his room. Between breaths of oxygen being pumped into his lungs by the BiPAP, he whispered to me how proud he was of me and then he thanked me for loving loving him for who he was. THANKED ME FOR LOVING HIM FOR HIM. This was what mattered the most to him in the end: unconditional love. Isn’t that what we all want and deserve? (The answer is yes). I was the last person to hear his voice. I spent the following weeks driving up to see him, sitting at his bedside and reading books by Atul Gawande and Jerome Groopman or studying SAT vocabulary. I spent my 17th birthday beside his shell of a body ridden with infection. My Uncle Brian, my person, died from an AIDS-related infection and I never even knew he was HIV positive.
My uncle was not perfect. To err is human and he was human. But, he did not deserve to die in pain with people hating him for being himself: a beautiful soul, a wonderful friend, a jovial spirit, a gay man who was HIV positive. AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is the most advanced stage of the HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) when the immune system becomes so weak that it cannot fight off infection. It was not discovered until the 1980s when it was still greatly misunderstood in terms of transmission and treatment. It really was a death sentence back then. Now, people know how it is contracted and therefore preventable, in addition to being more treatable. It can be managed and patients can live without the same imminent fears.
I say all of this because now we know. Now we can inform others on measure to prevent transmission, free HIV testing, and resources for treatment. There should not be shame associated with a disease. We should treat others with kindness. So, no matter your political, religious, and/or personal leanings, I share my story of my Uncle Brian, in hopes that you can imagine what you would want if “your person” was in the same position as “my person” was.
Even though I write this through tears of sorrow and joy, I’m happy. Today, the world is a different place. Identifying as part of the LGBTQIA, specifically as a gay man, is not a death sentence. HIV isn’t a death sentence, especially if you live in first-world nations where treatment and testing is available. According to HIV.gov, there are more than 1.1 million people in the USA who are living with HIV today and 1 in 7 don’t know it yet. Worldwide, there are an estimated 37 million people living with HIV and 2.1 million of those are children. All of them matter.
Tonight, I’m wearing red in an effort to shine light on World AIDS Day. You’ll find me at a dance night with proceeds going to charity that helps in providing testing and treatment for people with HIV/AIDS. So, I’ll be on the dance floor, throwing my hands in the air like I just don’t care, smiling from ear to ear, and living like my uncle would have wanted: to the fullest and loving people for who they are.