August 24, 2011

Can't Imagine

One of the things I got to do in my internship at Human Rights Campaign was go through all of the documents posted to the HRC website (close to a thousand of them) and organize them. What? That doesn't sound exciting? Okay, well, while I never want to see a spreadsheet again in my life, it kind of was, because I got to read about twenty years of documents and get a peak at a history of GLBT activism that I'd never seen before. And one thing that I kept coming up against was the HIV crisis.

The HIV crisis is one of those things that I sort of understood in theory. "In the 80s, lots of gay men died of AIDS and they made a quilt." I liked the movie version of Rent and got appropriately teary-eyed at that song during the support group, but it seemed a bit over-the-top to me that most of the characters were HIV-positive.

Then I came across a document that HRC published 10 years ago, called "Two Decades of Fighting for Life." It's a 22 page timeline, starting with the first known deaths in 1980, and ending in 2001. I read through the entire thing, watching the italicized numbers at the beginning of each year climb - 5,000 people diagnosed, 10,000 the next year, 23,000 the next year.

Can you imagine? I certainly can't.

There was an article published this week called Life After Death, about the impact of HIV/AIDS on the gay community now that the crisis is over, in that the life of the gay community doesn't revolve around AIDS as it once did. It was an interesting read - even growing up near DC, where HIV/AIDS remains a massive public health problem, I found myself relating to the author and the people he spoke to who weren't quite sure how they understand the disease. I mean, for me it's never been something to be particularly worried about - it was mentioned briefly in health class in a bullet list with other STIs, and that's that.

But there was this guy I met at General Assembly one year, with a tattoo around his leg - a pattern of black triangles in several rings, with a center one colored rainbow. I complemented him on it, and he told me that each triangle represented a friend he'd lost to AIDS. There were dozens of them.

So I feel like this is important, like it's a part of history that I should try to understand. But I just can't get my head around it.

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