In 2010, I found myself newly single and dating. Often.
This was an amazing time in my life, where I learned so much about myself and about the world around me, and where I also started learning — again — about HIV/AIDS.
As a kid from the late Gen-Xer, pre-Millennial generation, I was educated somewhere around 8th grade (circa 1992) that AIDS was a death sentence, and having unprotected sex was a sure-fire way to contract said death sentence. As a closeted gay kid in suburban Pittsburgh, PA, I was convinced I was
- a) going to contract AIDS (FEAR)
- b) going to die (STIGMA)
- c) somehow somewhere deep in my buried self-loathing, deserving of this death sentence (SELF-STIGMA)
This fear and stigma was centered around the reality of the situation at that time, a definitive lack of government action (thanks Gipper!) and a lack of consistent education. I remember my 8th grade health teacher giving us a realistic and honestly profound set of time around HIV/AIDS. But after that, I don’t remember studying the progress and the fight to end AIDS in school or University.
And there was SO much progress in the next 10 years. The reduction of stigma from Magic Johnson’s coming out as HIV Positive, the advances with proteas inhibitors and medicine, and the government finally paying attention to the incredible activists and the loss of so many men and women and children around the globe. In the US alone, it’s estimated a loss of over 650,000 lives since the onslaught of the epidemic in the early 1980's.
But with those advances came even less education. Even less conversation. Even, in some cases, less understanding: whether it was around the risks associated with contracting or understanding and acceptance of people who did contract HIV without judgement or consequence. It seems in the 18 years since I had left the 8th grade, the silence around HIV/AIDS I knew was also one known by many.
Back to the Future Part 1 (2010)
When dating back in 2010, I would casually and almost as an after-thought ask if my partner was “negative”, assuming of course he is, because… why?
On one such occasion, my partner, a sexy, smart and successful 28 year old I met at the gym (yes, all gays meet at the gym or online), replied with a “No”.
No, Not Negative. Positive.
“Oh. Ok. Cool”, I stammered, looking like the captain of all assholes I am sure. But this guy was amazing. I asked if I could ask him some questions, authentically curious about his response. He sat with me and answered those questions, asked me some too, and gave me such insight into what it meant to be a gay man living in the 2010’s, not just a positive gay man, but a gay man. This guy taught me so much in one evening, which spurred even more questions for me in many an evening afterwards.
Why was the big question for me. Why did we still have people contracting HIV? Carelessness was dispelled as primary motive in that initial conversation, though I too had been reckless in some of my sexual encounters before and after that point, a sense of invincibility left-over from my 20’s, I presume. And of course, there were often times where I didn’t even ask my partners, casually assuming their status with an air of ego reserved to those especially ignorant.
Speaking of ignorance, I considered myself a considerably well-educated individual, with more street smarts than school smarts but none-the-less, aware. I was aware of so many things, so many causes, I was a giver of time and resources and… completely full of shit to an extent. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know (a gift I believe also comes with your 30's).
Back to the Future Part 2 (2010)
It was in the post-information/education kick-in-the-ass high when I spoke to another friend from the gym, a man about 25 years my senior, about my experience. This friend of mine had recently started talking with friends of his generation, many of whom survived the plague-state that AIDS inflicted in Los Angeles and NYC and many other areas around the world; many of whom lost lovers, family members and countless friends, and some of whom survived a once-fatal diagnosis, left to wonder “now what?”.
This friend mentioned that he and another friend were interested in doing something in West Hollywood about the plaques that memorialized the nearly 10,000 WeHo Citizens lost between the early 1980’s and early 1990’s. 10,000. That’s roughly a 1/3rd of the population at that time.
So we got together and started talking. We then brought a few other folks to the table. I was passionate about education, others passionate about memorializing the lives lost, and others about celebrating the activists who fought to end AIDS, from David Mixner to Liz Taylor, Larry Kramer to Elisabeth Glaser. We determined how to reach a global audience, how to make this national, while focusing our efforts locally as well.
Within a year or so, we formed our official 501(c)3, The Foundation for the AIDS Monument. I served as the chair of the board for the next couple of years, then took a backseat as even more people, including those much better aligned at running large boards of directors.
In 2016, we did a branding exercise and came up with our name: STORIES: The AIDS Monument.
Today, the monument has an executive director, a staff, and a board of 18 passionate change-makers, philanthropists and successful business-persons. We have raised over 3/5 of our $5MM+ goal, and will break ground on the physical aspect of the monument in 2019, with completion projected by the Spring of 2020.
My STORY with STORIES is one of dedication, of letting go to let it grow, of honoring the people who lost their fight with AIDS, and of honoring the guy who cared enough to speak his truth, listen to my questions, and helped me make this story a reality.
If you can support my 40 Days to $4k campaign for STORIES:The AIDS Monument, that would be amazing — thank you. Or just follow STORIES as it continues to unfold by visiting and signing up for our newsletters at www.aidsmonument.org