It was the 1980s. I was in college. I was home for the holidays and met some of my old high school friends in a local bar. We hadn’t been “out” in high school (some of us were still sorting out our feelings and attractions) but we had each discovered and happily accepted our sexual orientation since graduation. It was great to be back home and together, living out loud as the people we were meant to be. Our level of connecting and sharing was richer, deeper, and more profound than it had ever been. Living in the power of truth has that effect, doesn’t it?
During one of those heart-to-heart and soul-to-soul conversations that young adults like to have late at night in dark bars, I said to one of my friends, “I’m so scared of this AIDS stuff that’s out there. I don’t know what I would do if I got it.” Without missing a beat, my friend responded, “I have it.”
I was devastated. It was more than concern for my friend, however. There was a level of terror that swept through my body as if I had been given the diagnosis. You see, it was the first time someone I knew had been diagnosed with the HIV virus. His self-disclosure made it all very real to me. If he could get it, anyone could. I could. It was no longer just a news story; it was, as of that very moment, part of my life.
My friend was luckier than many in those early days. He went from nutritional therapies to monotherapies to combination therapies. He survived as treatments advanced. And when the day came for me to tell him that I had sero-converted, he was supportive, loving, and encouraging. He showed me that a diagnosis need not define us or steal our joy.
One day many years later, my healthy, athletic old friend, who had proven that the human spirit is potentially indomitable, drowned while on vacation. After going toe to toe with HIV with remarkable success, an undercurrent at a Delaware beach is what ended his life. It seemed surreal. My grief was powerful and long-lasting.
It’s a new year, and somehow this new beginning brought to mind these ancient memories, but the memories are accompanied by a sense of gratitude for the strides we’ve made in HIV care since those uncertain days. The memories also stir within me a hope that people will no longer contract HIV (it is preventable). I hope those who are HIV positive will become aware of their status and get life-saving treatment. I hope people will lovingly remember those we lost too soon. And I hope that HIV awareness and activism continue until all who are positive are liberated from shame and stigma, all who are HIV negative remain so, and at long last, a cure is found.
AIDS isn’t over yet, but I still believe that it can be defeated if we will remain vigilant. May this new year be a happy and healthy one for all of us.
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins is the senior minister of the Sunshine Cathedral in Ft. Lauderdale