HIV isn’t what it used to be anymore – at least that’s what most young men think nowadays. Seeing films where gay men are dying of AIDS, shooting up drugs, or fighting for their meds seem to conflict with the advertisements we see on billboards saying “one pill a day” with a cute twink reaching out his hand. Men who’ve lived with this disease since the rise of the crisis in the ‘80s are first generation survivors; they’re not dead.
It seems like most of our focus is on preventing more gay guys from contracting HIV by spending a tremendous amount of money on literature, condom giveaways, and campaigns. This is incredibly important for our future, but yet the men from our past who these films and books were based on are slowly becoming ignored. Many of them suffer in silent ways that we cant even begin to imagine.
PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is incredibly prevalent among first generation survivors; so is Survivor’s Guilt. Coming to grips with the reality that you survived and they didn’t is a hard journey. The only way to get through it is by having a steady support system, a sturdy foundation on which you can plant your feet when your feeling off balance.This kind of community existed in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Gay men were there for each other when the world wasn’t. Now that queer people are more accepted by society, holding onto our sense of community became unnecessary as each generation passed. This was where the problem started.
HIV-positive men in their 50s and 60s who might be taking thirteen to fifteen pills a day put their bodies through tremendous challenges. In a way, they were the guinea pigs, the first experimenters with these kinds of treatments. At the time, no one considered long-term side effects – the point was just to stay alive. Studies have shown that by 2015, nearly half of HIV-positive individuals in America will be 50 and older. These men show a younger generation that HIV is manageable, but are young men refusing to see the long-term effects of HIV and instead focusing on the cutie reaching out his hand in the magazines?
Life isn’t over. HIV-positive men aren’t giving up, but for the love of God, the world needs to stop pretending like they don’t exist. The AIDS crisis was one of the biggest epidemics we’ve ever seen – it kills thousands and thousands of people every year. Survivors don’t want pity nor are they asking for it, but the very least we can do is to recognize the ones who are suffering.
Newly infected men will go through a completely different experience than men of their previous generation. They won’t have to experience fighting with their government to give them proper meds; they won’t experience countless of loved ones die in their arms; they won’t fear having to be forced to reveal their status for their employers; they might not even fear death. But for older HIV-positive men who relive these memories on a daily basis, life can be a trial.
Being old with HIV isn’t a curse. I’m not saying we should pity them by any means; they are some of the happiest and content people I know. We have a lot to learn from each other, so much that I often wonder why it is we’re scared to ask, learn, and act. The only way of growing as a culture is to rekindle some of that old-fashioned community – the time to act is now. Let’s get to know one another. Unity is possible, only if we allow it to be.