Monday, February 24, 2014

Growing up with AIDS

My wife and I watched the Dallas Buyers Club the other night.  The film's protagonist, Ron Woodruff,  played by Matthew McConaughey,  is a hard living electrician and rodeo cowboy diagnosed with AIDS shortly after the film opens, and given the grim prognosis of 30 days to live.  Upon hearing the news Ron does what any self respecting hard living cowboy would do, he lives even harder going on a coke binge that almost kills him. 

Woodruff is homophobic, and like much of society in 1985 believes only gay men are susceptible to AIDS.  He struggles as much with the implication of having the disease as he does the disease itself.  In fact, one thing the film does so well in portraying Woodruff's transformation from an epithet spewing homophobe to business savvy AIDS activist is also capture the shifts in attitude and understanding society goes through.  For example, when he's diagnosed, his doctors wear gloves and masks, and stand at a considerable distance from him.  Later in the film, one of those same doctors, now an ally, will drink from a shared glass with him. 

As someone who came of age during the AIDS crisis the movie gave me a lot to reflect about.  Anyone remember the Eddie Murphy routine in Delirious about the dangers of a woman bringing AIDS home from a social kiss? Around 1985 my mother was working on a degree in public health.  I grew up with dire warnings and news articles taped to our refrigerator.  I remember being told that when I had sex I would be having sex with everyone my partner had had sex with and everyone their partner had had sex with.  Jesus.  That's heavy.

Eventually, though, our understanding about the disease grew.  And so did the proximity of the disease to our lives.  First, because of my mum's work, I knew people who were HIV positive, or who had been diagnosed with AIDS.  Chris was a young man who had spoken in my mother's health class.  My sister and I shared a plate of nachos with him at TGI Friday's.  We knew enough to know that a cold virus we might have had was more a danger to Chris than the likelihood of his transmitting HIV through social contact and shared poor food choices. 

Closer to home, I learned a friend's father had died.  The man was a San Diego icon who had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion.  I remember the shame my friend felt about his father.  The stigma associated with HIV was so great.  A longtime La Jolla staple, Bobby D, died of complications associated with AIDS also.  His life was first crippled by alcohol, but I remember him being generous of spirit, if a little worse for wear whenever I encountered him.

Later, in the early 90s, I worked for two men who ran a coffeehouse.  One of whom, Irwin, was so proud of opening a business he had business cards made up for himself.  His partner, Thom, ribbed him about that.  Once, when I was working they came in to check on things, and make themselves drinks.  They'd gone out that day to get Irwin a tattoo--a large triceratops head on Irwin's equally large upper arm.  I didn't know it at the time but Irwin was crossing thing's off his own bucket list.  In what must have been merely weeks we stopped seeing Irwin at the coffeehouse.  He was sick.  I remember, though, visiting their house one night with a friend.  Thom was mid-pool game with a friend seemingly in a state of denial.  He indicated that if I'd like to say hello to Erwin, I'd find him downstairs in his room.

The room was dark except for the pale light of a muted television set.  Irwin sat propped up on pillows, his head listing slightly.  He was a shadow of the man I'd met months earlier.  I remember feebly asking how he was doing.

"You know, I"m dying, don't you Marc?" he asked.

It was devastating to know there was nothing that anyone could be do for Irwin.  There wasn't anything that could have been done for the others, either.  Whole communities were powerless over this thing.  HIV/AIDS was a death sentence.  Something the Dallas Buyers Club does so well is to portray Ron Woodruff's indomitable spirit in the face of overwhelming odds against marginalization, a largely indifferent government, and a the status quo medical establishment.  

We've come a long way since then.  People with HIV, and access to healthcare, live longer, healthier lives.  I'd like to think the stigma associated with HIV is no longer, but that's far from true.  That said, a lot of good work is being done with respect to education and services.  I learned recently that a friend from high school, Stan Kim, is participating in a 450 mile bike ride to raise money and awareness through AIDS/LifeCycle.  Beneficiaries include LA Gay and Lesbian Center and the San Francisco AIDS foundation.  Both do good work.  You can read more here: aidslifecycle and you can help Stan reach his modest goal here:

Lastly, there is a United Nations site that has promising numbers demonstrating that the work done by organizations such as SF AIDS Foundation and LA Gay and Lesbian Center and others on a global scale impacts the bottom line: fewer people are contracting the disease and more people have access to antiretroviral therapy: AIDS by the numbers

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing. Looking forward to see this movie.