Way back in 1984 as America was in the grips of a social panic over the so-called Gay Plague that seemed to threaten us with mass extinction from exposure from the air in jet liners or public toilet seats and respectable members of Congress were suggesting rounding up all Gays and putting them in the old abandoned McCarran Act concentration camps originally intended for Commies or on desert islands far, far away, it took a chaste, white Indiana 14 year old who was innocently infected through a blood transfusion to put a human face on the disease and begin to generate public sympathy for any of its victims. Ryan White became the first poster boy of AIDS Awareness. He showed up on the cover of People, sat on the couch of the Today Show, and was pals with Michael Jackson and Elton John. When he died at age 19 in 1990 the nation wept.
|Ryan White put an acceptable human face on AIDS with grace and dignity.|
It took the Memorial Quilt, Red Ribbons, Angels in America, and the in-your-face militancy of Act Up to change the culture and the public’s mind. Gay people counted too, it turned out. Maybe even, if you stretched your standards, slutty women and junkies. There was a parade of new faces of AIDS—Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, Elizabeth Glaser and her infected children, Arthur Ashe, etc.
Then came basketball super star Magic Johnson who announced that he was infected with HIV but not with full-blown AIDS. But thanks to new drug treatments made possible by the relentless campaigns for public awareness, too many empty chairs at Thanksgivings, and wild-eyed radicalism of Act Up, Johnson not only survived, but seemed to thrive. The tsunami of AIDS deaths suddenly subsided. Like magic the scourge seemed to fade away and was soon forgotten by the public, which turned to new panics to obsess over.
|Now we get Charlie Sheen and the inevitable circus.|
Now more than thirty years after Ryan White, AIDS is back in the headlines competing with terrorists, refugees, immigrants, Black protesters, and White zealots thanks to the baddest of the bad boys, Charlie Sheen whose drug, hooker, and booze meltdown a couple of years ago kept the tabloids, celeb stalking TV shows, and the allegedly serious mainstream press agog for months on end.
Gee, thanks Charlie. We think. On the 27th annual World AIDS Day Sheen has resurrected the image of the infection as the just deserts of the immoral. A perfect fit for the rising tide of Puritanical Fundamentalist Right Wing power. You can hear the we-told-you-sos rising.
It couldn’t come at a worse time, with death rates for AIDS creeping back up among a generation that never experienced the devastating losses of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s and whose sex education and safety classes have been stripped from many classrooms by abstinence only public policy. The attack on Planned Parenthood and contraception has reduced the wide spread availability of condoms and instruction in their use that was key in slowing down infections rates. It has also made medical testing, care, and treatment harder to come by. AIDS is making a comeback, along with a raft of venereal diseases including syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. Infection rates are rising fastest in women and in minority, especially Black communities. Just the kind of folks the religious crazies and their political enablers want to see suffer God’s wrath.
Come to think of it, maybe Charlie was just what we need to remind us that all lives have inherit worth and dignity even when it is well disguised and that in this case All Lives really do Matter. It is a challenge and dare not to fall back into somnambulant complacency.
|A 1990 Act Up Die-In in the Chicago Loop. Maybe its time to revisit this kind of activism.|
So dig out those old Red Ribbons. Roll up your sleeves. It’s World AIDS Day. We have work to do. Again.