once fatal, now chronic and manageable

I don’t normally write about grim topics, but this time a grim topic has risen up and waved its hands in my face. On New Year’s Day my friend Candi wrote on Facebook about the gay couple who got married on the float in the Rose Parade and in that comment she mentioned AIDS. The book Cool Gray City of Love, which I just finished, has a chapter that graphically describes the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco.

We have all been touched by AIDS and I am no exception. I first remember reading about the disease when I was living in Oklahoma City, probably in the New York Times, as that was not a topic that the local newspaper would have been interested in at the time. Doctors were confused by some unusual strains of cancer which were affecting gay men. Once the disease was understood and had a label we were at first told that there was little to worry about because it could only be contracted by frequent, repeated exposure. We quickly learned that was nonsense and that it only took a single exposure.

I was classified advertising manager at the Oklahoma Gazette, the local alternative newsweekly, when the editor interviewed a man with AIDS. This was when cases were few and having AIDS was newsworthy, at least to the alternative press. He came back from the interview somewhat shaken. Both he and the individual knew he had been handed a death sentence.

After moving to California in 1985, in my Religious Science days, there was a musical group popular amongst Religious Science churches called Alliance. The men in the group were gay, and as time moved forward all the members of the group except one were lost to the disease. Indeed, a member of our church, a gay man, fatally fell victim.

Just before this time I undertook a short, penitential and cathartic return to B. Dalton Bookseller. The assistant manager was a gay man who lived with his partner. He was always getting some kind of bug or another. He was naturally panicked, but his doctor reassured him that he was just getting every little thing that came along.

Times change, however, and a lot of very skilled and highly capable scientists and doctors threw themselves into attacking the disease. They were successful in developing a “drug cocktail” that allowed those with AIDS to move into a sort of maintenance mode. When I first became part of the Episcopal Church in 1996 one of the first Episcopal priests I met was a gay man with AIDS. The cocktail was allowed him to live an active, normal life. Today he is well and thriving in New York City.

What was once a sure sentence of death is today a manageable chronic disease with a drug regimen costing about $100 a year.

There are a lot of things wrong and misguided about our society. Sometimes, every so often, however, we as a society get it right. I’m grateful for that.

Holly Near, “The Letter,” written by Rubén Blades

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