The HIV Generation Gap
Picture of Tyler Curry (@iamtylercurry) courtesy of Kevin Chung
For the past 30 years, gay men have been stuck in a constant sparring match with HIV. For the first two decades of the epidemic, it seemed that we could never measure up to the brute and brawn of this vile disease. But in the third decade of battle, it appears that we are primed for one of the greatest comebacks of all time. This potential victory comes with great loss. Some of our best men who were a part of the initial rounds were knocked out of the battle far too early. Entire communities were ravaged by this ominous foe, leaving only a few where there were once many still standing. Now, these veteran survivors stand along with many new fighters in the battle, but sometimes there is strife within the differing ranks.
Of course, it is to be expected that those who have been a part of the fight since the beginning will have a deeper connection and sense of ownership with their forever "shadow boxer." As these men tell the tales of a time of more funerals than birthday parties, early meds that made you want to die and the hope of just living another year, maybe two, it hardly seems like we are in the same battle at all.
Men like Peter Staley, Mark S. King and Jack Mackenroth and many others paved the road for people like Chris Richey and Scott McPherson of the Stigma Project and myself to enter the ring with a much lesser foe today. These veteran fighters as well as many others have served as mentors for us. They are patient, forgiving and kind as we stumble around, finding our footing in the world of activism.
But just like in any battle, some of these long-term survivors can sometimes hold a bit of resentment toward those who avoided the worst part of the fight. And this sentiment is quite understandable.
The early days of HIV are comparable to very few other epidemics in modern history. Unlike other health crises, an additional layer of shame and blame were included in the symptoms that accompanied the virus. These people were shunned for more than just the fear of infection and were often left alone to face the certainty of death. For the men and women who somehow outlasted their dismal prognosis, and to the many others who fortuitously avoided infection, the pain of losing so many others to the disease is still palpable.
For some, this pain has hardened into a tear-tinged anger toward younger men who are diagnosed today. It can be easy to view these newbies as privileged morons instead of the unknowing victims of the early years. An angry finger is wagged at the newly diagnosed twentysomething who assumedly threw caution to the wind, because any gay men with half a brain knows exactly how HIV is transmitted.
How could these young men not know? Or is HIV considered so easily managed that the younger generation just doesn’t care anymore? The mere possibility of these questions being true is enough to send some long-term survivors into a chastising tirade, complete with a barrage of scary (and out-of-date) side effects, judgmental labels and a healthy serving of shame...just like they received all those years ago.
Although the emotion behind these actions is understandable, the delivery only serves to perpetuate the fear and silence that only helps to increase transmission rates.
As someone who is newly HIV-positive myself, I can only sympathize with long-term survivors of the disease. I would dare not say I could empathize. I will never know how it must have felt to discover you were carrying a death sentence in your bloodstream. I shudder to even imagine having to see my friends waste away around me or to experience the horrendous side effects that were often worse that the disease itself.
And although modern medicine has eradicated the eminent doom that so many gay men from the early years had to face, the stigma that kept so many quiet about their disease is still alive and well. It is within this stigma that you can find the root to a myriad of psychological issues that lead to young, naïve gay men to become infected today.
I know this all too well. Only a year ago, I was unaware that anyone in my immediate social web was living with HIV. They were all too afraid of the judgment that comes attached to the positive label. It was only after I began to bang my drum and call attention to my status that so many around me revealed that they too were living with the disease.
The drastically different generational experiences with HIV can make it almost feel like we are sometimes on opposite sides of the ring. But whether veteran or novice, there is a common vein of shame and stigma that we feel in the fight of HIV. The fighting style of our opponent has changed, and the new fighters must rely on the survivors of the fight to help us keep up the winning streak.
Our bodies are solid. But we need the veterans to help us new fighters strengthen something else.