Wednesday, December 1, 2010

World AIDS Day

Many years ago, I facilitated an AIDS support group for families, friends and partners of those infected with HIV/AIDS.    Today, on World AIDS Day, I remember my little group.

Mary was one of the earliest members of our group.    She was 86, she was tiny and absolutely beautiful, and she was every inch a lady.  She was always nicely dressed, she was sweet tempered, she had a halo of white hair and eyes as bright as stars. She was also, as little old ladies in my community tended to be, traditional, very religious and politically conservative. Mary had always been adored and protected. She was a respected member of her church, loved by all, a wonderful wife and mother, and gratefully living a privileged, picture-perfect life. Except that she had just learned two things about her youngest son, an extremely handsome man in his 40s, a successful businessman, husband and the father of Mary’s grandchild. Mary had just learned that her son was gay, and that he was rapidly dying of AIDS.

This was in the days when homophobia was open and acceptable. People were really terrified of AIDS, and having a homosexual in the family was reason enough to be condemned and shunned by neighbors and friends.  AIDS was almost universally considered more a judgment than a disease.   (People were also confused in those days about the distinction between adult homosexuality and pedophilia, and many were unaware that child molestation, whether hetero or homosexual, is a crime and a disorder, and never part of a healthy sexuality.)  People with AIDS routinely lost their jobs, their friends, and their families.  And their families, in turn, routinely lost the support of their friends, their family and their church.   So our group was the rare safe place for families who were dealing with multiple levels of pain, and the place where they were able to first admit out loud that there was homosexuality in their family, and that their child or spouse or friend had been diagnosed as HIV positive.   

Anyway, as Mary tried to wrap her mind around her new reality, she quietly and privately struggled with many things. Her son and his family had been living out of the country but they were in frequent contact, and Mary wondered what signals of her son’s suffering she had missed. She sought out what little information there was about her son’s disease, and took steps to help care for her grandchild and daughter-in-law. She did not talk to her priest, her neighbors, or her extended family, because, as was perfectly reasonable for those times, she felt certain of their reactions., certain of their rejection. 

In our little support group, Mary sat and listened for several meetings without saying a word. Finally, she approached me privately and said that she had never wondered about these things before, but now she wanted to know why people hated and feared homosexuals. What is it that they do, she wondered, that was so universally condemned as evil. And so Mary and I talked about sexuality.  More specifically, because of the circumstances in Mary's life, we talked about male homosexuality.  

I should explain that this was not as unnerving for me as it might have been had I not spent my career presenting objective descriptions and analyses of legal matters, including details of criminal sexual conduct. I have been called on to describe explicit sexual allegations dozens of times, to judges and even a priest or two, so I had overcome some of the normal reticence in discussing intimate matters. And I brought those skills to bear in my conversation with Mary, who sat there looking like an angel. I told her that homosexuals are drawn by affection and attraction to people of their own sex, and  at her insistence I described, in unflinching detail,  every variety of adult gay sex I could think of.  I tried to tell her everything I knew because I didn't want her to  hear about it elsewhere, in a hostile conversation.  As always, Mary listened quietly and intently, asking questions to be sure she understood everything I was telling her.

Finally Mary looked at me with her clear blue eyes. “Are you telling me that the Church, the government and my neighbors all hate a group of people because they don’t like the  people they choose as lovers and the kind of sex they are having? Are you sure? Because that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.” Mary shook her head and said, “now I’ve lived to see everything.” 

In those days, there was a funeral almost every week and I led the services for many of them.   Almost half of the HIV-infected people I met were women, and two were children.   Mary's son was one of the casualties, and our group suffered repeated, unimaginable loss.  We cried rivers of tears.    Ironically, we also laughed more than most people laugh in their lifetime, as families were able to share, without censor, some of their fondest memories of their loved ones.    The new drug cocktails became available in time to save the child, a daughter, of only one of our group's members.   

Much has changed since then, but not everything.   The drug therapies have provided new hope, but HIV is still a health threat and people who are infected or affected continue to suffer from stigma, poverty and ignorance.   I recently heard on npr that 2/3 of the people who need the anti-viral drugs, worldwide, are not getting them.   We still need more research, more education and a lot more compassion.   



Little Black Scrap Cat said...

Your story is very touching and well written. You seem to have lived an very interesting life. It would be nice if someday the stigma of homosexuality would pass....

sue in mexico mo said...

That was a very touching post. When you are ready, will you again work for this cause? I'm sure there is a great need for your talents in the work world and also in the world of volunteering. I am "on break" now, but I have helped with our local domestic violence hot line and plan to do it again. I encourage everyone to find a cause and volunteer!