Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Gay Plague

1981 saw the emergence of a disease that would change the gay community and later the world’s attitude towards our sexual behavior, lifestyle and prejudices. It was 1st described as the Gay Plague; a disease that only affected gay men and was 1st called GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). During the 80’s the word GRID was replaced with AIDS and this filled people with a horrendous fear as images of dying emaciated gay men were plastered in the media.

During this time it was uncertain how the disease was transmitted and it was viewed as a death sentence and was highly stigmatized. Having the Gay Plague was shameful and society alienated those infected due to fear and ignorance. Now, 30 years later, I wonder how much have changed?
My 1st encounter with HIV and AIDS was with a friend of mine in 1996. He was diagnosed with HIV 8 years prior and during the winter of 1996 he fell ill and died of AIDS related complications. All his friends knew of his HIV status that’s why we found it shocking that his family at his funeral told people he had died of Cancer. Even after his death his illness was denied. The shame of having a gay son was soon superseded by having a gay son with HIV that died of the disease.

His family never approved of his lifestyle and had always blamed his homosexuality for his death when, as a matter of fact, he contracted the illness through a blood transfusion after a car accident. His family have still not forgiven the gay community for what we evidently had done to their son; his death instead of enlightening his family to the plight of people with HIV has made them homophobic and left them angry. Whether their prejudice and anger has dissipated since is uncertain.
One of my best friends of 12 years was diagnosed with HIV 8 years ago. I remember the day he told me.  He had just learned of his diagnoses the week before and was still reeling from shock. I remember him finding it difficult to muster the courage to utter the words. In his eyes I could see his fear, sadness and helplessness as he faced an uncertain future. All he longed for from me was an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on and someone to provide him with encouragement and support and not to be judgmental.

Isn’t that what we all would want? He admitted that he contracted HIV due to having unprotected sex. I remember thinking to myself that he should have known better, and now due to one stupid incident he’s going to live with a sword hanging over his head for the rest of his life. Naturally, I kept my thoughts to myself; after all it happened and he’s HIV+ now and there is no use crying over spilled milk.
The 1st year following his diagnoses he found it incredibly difficult to accept. Due to denial and anger he spent the year engaging in self-destructive behavior – abusing alcohol and drugs. I recall having a conversation with him trying to convince him to get his life back on track but he refused as he was of the attitude that he’s going to die anyway so why prolong the process. He also mentioned that he intended to commit suicide once he got full blown AIDS as he wouldn’t want his friends and family to watch him suffer.  He was not scared of dying but feared the process of dying! At the time his threat of suicide was no idle one.

His family did not make things easier.  In fact, due to ignorance, they made things worse. They would have separate cutlery for him in the house and his laundry was kept separate from theirs - he was truly being treated like he had the plague. I am sure his family didn’t do this because they didn’t love him; they were scared as they didn’t quite know how to deal with and support their child and brother with HIV.

Gradually, as time passed, his family became more educated and their attitude and ignorant behavior changed. Family life almost returned to normal: 2 years after being diagnosed he was still alive and no family member got infected by sharing a glass with him or having their laundry done with his. However, his self-destructive behavior continued until he fell seriously ill.

For the 1st time he faced the real possibility of death. The experience changed him and the realization came that if he does not accept and deal with the fact that he’s HIV+ and take responsibility for his own live and health he would not live past the age of 30. He had a fundamental paradigm shift as only a near death encounter can achieve. For the last 5 years he has lived a normal, healthy and productive life. He has even had a couple of relationships, which is notoriously difficult as very few healthy gay men would be willing to date someone with HIV. However, he did find someone and they were together for almost 2 years. Like most things in life it has not been smooth sailing and a few health scares has rocked the boat. What I have learned from him is that your attitude, shear will and optimism plays an important part of living with HIV – it’s no longer is a death sentence as was first thought 30 years ago.

Being only 4 years old when the Gay Plague surfaced I literally grew up with it. Now,  34 I have seen how society and their attitudes have changed. HIV is no longer an exclusively gay disease and all spheres of society from all corners of the world are affected. There are very few people whose lives have not been touched by the disease as most of us know someone or know off someone who has HIV.

As we have learned more about the disease, how it’s transmitted and newer and more effective treatments are developed HIV+ people are living longer and their quality of life have also improved. However, in many communities HIV is still stigmatized and ignorance about the disease is still rampant. With all we know and have learned about HIV there are still people that engage in unprotected sex and people who refuse to get tested out of fear. After 30 years much have improved but many problems still remain that only our generation can change if we want to leave the world better place for the next generation.

One way to support this cause is to get involved. I recently discovered a very inspiring website called Positive Heroes . There are similar groups and websites across the globe; they say it only take one person to make a difference – let that 1 person be you!  Know your status and get tested today.

Till next time.


Crazeebee747 said...

This post rings very close to my heart as I went for my routine HIV test about a month ago. It is literally your sexual life / activities flashing before your eyes with the new ways of testing your status these days.

The one thing that did freak me out is how evolving the definition of safe sex is these days. I mean stuff I generally classify as low risk was not that according to the doctor who tested me recently. So for me it is a battle of extreme paranoia versus being too careless. Finding the balance to feel ok to let go and still be safe is my battle these days!

I raised this question in my friendship circles and the simple answer use a condom??!?! I am asking how safe is all the activity leading up to when the glove is on ready to love?

Anyhoo, one is for sure and I agree with you. There are strides been made from the gay plague days and to where it is now.

Thanks for the post. Till next time ;-)

Pierre said...

Crazeebee747 safe sex could be a complete post on it's own.

Glad to hear that you are one of the people that do get tested every now and again as I do think it's important that people know their HIV status.

We sure have come a long way from 1981, but there still is a long road ahead!

CTVicky said...

Excellent post.

I have had a glimpse of how terrifying and desperately sad it is to be diagnosed HIV+.

I don't have it and I don't personally know anyone that has it but a while back I suspected I may have it after developing symptoms and doing some research on them and HIV on the internet.

I went to the sexual health clinic and got myself tested for everything. It was a humiliating and unpleasant experience but the relief I felt after finally being told I had no infections was insurmountable and I still feel it today.

Sorry to ramble on. My points are:

Even though I don't have HIV, just the thought of having it was enough to terrify me, and that is due to my lack of understanding, common misconceptions, media scaremongering and society's stigmatisation. I have since read that HIV is not nearly as bad as it's made out to be.

Also, my experience made me more conscious of personal safety. More needs to be done by the government and the media to spread awareness of not only HIV prevention methods but also general STI prevention.

shanaz AL said...

A very excellent post, touching and true to the core of the subject.

I believe that people today are more aware of how HIV is tranmitted and steps are taken to ensure an improved the quality of lives of those who are HIV+.

Those who put swords over the lifesytle of homosexuals and are highly judgemental when members of the circle get HIV are actually hung up over the gay issue more than the health issue.

Again Pierre, Enjoyed your write very much! I love your point of views.

Pierre said...

Thanks for the feedback!

However, I must say I am sill disappointed that so few people are actually willing to discuss the issue of HIV in an open forum.

Whether your are HIV+ or HIV- I still am at loss as to why people fear to engage on the subject matter honestly and openly even after 28 years!

Fr. Marty Kurylowicz said...

You write so beautifully on such a very sad look at human life, the way we mistreat people when they need us the most. May I place a couple of excerpts from your article on the Thalamus Center and of course supply on the necessary links to your blog. I will remove it immediately if you prefer I should not do this. Your story is one that should not be forgotten but remebred so we treat people better.

All the best,

Scott W said...

Pierre - what a great post. Your stories are moving and your insights are very personal and honest. Thanks so much for sharing.

I just turned 40, and had a couple of friends in the 80's who died of AIDS. It was so sad to see people who were so vibrant and healthy literally be slowly and painfully snuffed out by a persistent and unforgiving disease.

My partner, who is older than me, had many more friends who died - including a former partner of his. It was such a sad time.

The only silver lining today is that it's no longer an automatic death sentence. The medications are better, and with fewer side effects.

However, with that said, it is still such a devastating disease. I think because of the better treatment options, the gay community has lost some of its vigilance about safe sex as well as about demanding a cure. Stories such as yours are so important to help reinforce the dangers and raise awareness.

I must say that it's incomprehensible to me why it is still not openly discussed in public forums. There should be no stigma associated with AIDS, just as there should be no stigma associated with being gay.

Please keep speaking up and speaking out. I appreciate your blog and look forward to your future posts!


Pierre said...

Thanks for your comments and sharing your views.

I think it is important that this issue is raised and discussed as complacency and apathy in gay community on HIV is a cause of concern.

HIV should not be treated like a taboo anymore!

Marty feel free to use any excerpts from your article on the Thalamus Center if you think it will help raise awareness.

Anonymous said...

Many do not realize that in the last few years it has become possible not only to determine whether HIV is present in a blood or plasma sample, but also to determine the particular subtype of the virus. Studying the subtype of virus of some of the earliest known instances of HIV infection has provided clues about the time it first appeared in humans and its subsequent evolution.

Initially, four of the earliest known instances of HIV infection were thought to be as follows:

1. A plasma sample taken in 1959 from an adult male living in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
2. A lymph node sample taken in 1960 from an adult female, also from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
3. HIV found in tissue samples from an American teenager who died in St. Louis in 1969.
4. HIV found in tissue samples from a Norwegian sailor who died around 1976.

A 1998 analysis of the plasma sample from 1959 suggested that HIV-1 was introduced into humans around the 1940s or the early 1950s.

In January 2000, the results of a new study suggested that the first case of HIV-1 infection occurred around 1931 in West Africa. This estimate (which had a 15 year margin of error) was based on a complex computer model of HIV's evolution.

However, a study in 2008 dated the origin of HIV to between 1884 and 1924, much earlier than previous estimates. The researchers compared the viral sequence from 1959 (the oldest known HIV-1 specimen) to the newly discovered sequence from 1960. They found a significant genetic difference between them, demonstrating diversification of HIV-1 occurred long before the AIDS pandemic was recognised.

Tom L

Pierre said...

Hi Tom

Thanks for your interesting comments and giving us the historical perspective on disease. I also came across the research that the first documented case of HIV was in 1959, never knew that it goes as far back as between 1884 to 1924. It's mind boggling to say the least!

Pierre said...

Does anyone else have similar interesting facts they would like to share? I am finding it fascinating!

dorp2dorp said...

I love this blog, I am a gay guy in a steady relationship for 3 years now, i nor my partner have aids but because we live in a small town in the Eastern Cape people automatically think we have aids and take drugs and all the rest.

Its nice to see a forum like this thanks.

Pierre said...

Hi dorp2dorp

Glad you like my blog. Isn't it a pity that there is still such prejudice and stereotyping of gay people in this day and age?

I have many heterosexual people that are regular readers of my blog and I believe it's through people like them that this will change over time.

surveygirl46 said...

Hi Pierre,

People act out against what they don't understand and a lot of them don't stop to consider what it's like to be someone different from themselves and so they "label". I believe that the understanding, nonjudgmental people you will have in every generation, same with the judgemental. I believe we are all on earth to learn lessons, some we are strong in, some we are weak in. That's why, to me, the best lesson you can learn is tolerance for what is different from your understanding. One persons journey is not the other's to walk. So I try to be judgemental, but trailer people really test meLOL- just kiddin, i am judgemental somtimes against the judgemental.
I love your blog by the way

Pierre said...

Hi surveygirl46

I don't think we will ever completely get rid of judgemental people as you stated, but we can work toward eradicating some of the prejudices we face. Baby steps...

Glad you like my blog, please keep reading it! Always nice to get some feedback!!

surveygirl46 said...

I put your blog on my stumble page. That way I can find it easily and people will see it alot when they bumble through:)

Jason said...

Such an interesting post on this issue. Touching and thoughtful, it's true, I think every gay man knows of or peronally knows someone with HIV or if they are over a certain age, someone who has died from it.

Thank you for such a nice and touching post.

Pierre said...

Thanks Jason, a appreciate your comment. HIV has become so prevalent that it indeed touches many people's lives, yet people still shy away from the issue.

I remember what I big deal it was when Princess Diana visited AIDS patients and actually touched them. For the first time people could see you won't get the disease from just touching a person. She was and still remains one of my heroes! She did so much to help bring HIV and AIDS into the public forum.

Rick H said...

I have been HIV+ since 1986. It has gotten much better and a lot of fear of HIV has lessened, but there are still some people out there that don't understand how it is transmitted. Thank you for writing about it. Talking about it us the best way let people know what they need to know. Rick Hall

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