This is an open letter to ask that you help get the word about the messages contained within my novel. Whether you read or buy the book is irrelevant. Its message is what you need to share, now and loudly. Writing this book took over a decade. It took all those years, because it was a process in which I had to make sense the horrible losses of many friends to AIDS, and the loss of my mother, who lost a five-year battle to Cancer, the year after the AIDS crisis had “ended. But, in spite of all that loss, what I most needed to explore was what I lived when the “crisis” was over.
As soon as effective treatment became available, I looked around and saw men pushing sexual boundaries. Men I knew, myself included, immediately began to act as though we either had nothing left to lose, or nothing left to fear. But as we did this, men who had remained negative through the worst of the crisis were suddenly testing positive. Then younger men, who did not see what AIDS first-hand, also began testing positive at alarming rates. The fact that we could push those sexual boundaries so quickly always weighed heavily on me, because, in doing so, it seemed as though the risk of HIV infection had become trivial. To me, it was never trivial.
To make sense of it all, I had to create a character that was taking the journey of so many men that I knew. Creating that journey allowed me to understand and empathize. Morally, I feel the need to empathize before I judge, and I was having a hard time finding that empathy— not just for the men of my community, but for myself as well. I felt guilty for having the same feelings and attractions to the behaviors as so many others. I felt even worse because, sometimes, it felt like I was the only one that carried that guilt.
Making things more complicated, our rabble-rousing community had, for nearly two decades, used the mantra “Silence=Death” to drive gay politics. But when it came to the way we were having sex, we grew instantly silent on the subject. Seemingly, we quieted out of fears that the “seedier” realities of gay sub-culture might have a negative impact on the equality movement.
In the end, the book was awaiting a satisfying resolution. Rather, in all those years, we had not yet learned that we already had an answer. We did not know the drugs we had could allow us to have sex the way we each desired and still avoid spreading HIV. I shudder to think of the number of lives that could have been spared if we had simply known the power of the tools we already had. Now that we understand, the knowledge is being put to better use in the UK and the third world than it is here at home.
We are having a hard time accepting that we no longer need to live in fear. We are shaming or guilt-tripping people who take the drug, in ways that are reminiscent of the early days of birth control in the women’s sexual movement. But what saddens me most about this is that the resistant voice seems to originate from my once strongly united community. That community was so united in my youth that they made me believe we would fight to end AIDS by any means necessary. Now, it seems many gay men will only accept the end of AIDS through condom use. The very group that I expected would celebrate the news, is the single biggest hindrance to the proliferation of the first viable solution we have ever seen to end HIV and AIDS. But unlike what many would report, this communal divide does not seem to be a generational one. To me it looks like a battle of sexual conservatism vs. sexual freedom, a well-known fight that has few generational or preferential barriers.
David, the main character in Sally Field, is an anti-hero who finds a voice when he finds a way to forgive himself. He sets out to start a movement to end AIDS and HIV once and for all. In that way we are alike. I want my work to be a tool of understanding that helps embolden a movement. I want to inspire my community to stop rejecting the solution they have been offered, but instead, to ask more salient questions, like: Can this solution be applied smarter and better? Can we find a way for it to fit the needs of all, instead of just those at highest risk? Can we stop pointing blame and focus on education once again? Unlike David, I did not inherit a fortune with which to do this work, I only have my words, and I only have you to call upon to share them.
President Obama and the (RED) Campaign are leading a global charge to have an AIDS Free Generation born in the year 2015. But the goal of this campaign is to have no babies born in with HIV. No one is yet promising that the generation will live a life without having to fear AIDS. But that can be a very real possibility. If we want to see that reality, it will literally take all of us to make it happen.
Last week in New York, Governor Cuomo took a huge first step toward achieving this, promising his state would supply drugs to those that need them, and aggressively test to reduce the population of people who are HIV-positive but do not know it. But one Governor, in one state, is not enough. The fact the PrEP and PEP exist is also not enough. We all have to do our part. We have to find our empathy and stop judging each other’s behavior. We have to place a value on every life that supersedes the judgment we feel when another person exercises their right to make different sexual choices than we might find acceptable ourselves. We have to be unafraid to admit we are human and we crave the contact of each other, and that we fear disease enough to sometimes live in denial. To admit these things is not at all shameful, it is a powerful acknowledgement of what makes us human.
If you believe we are capable, then please send this email to your friends and ask them to share it with anyone who might share your values. Ask them to learn the new landscape of HIV and AIDS. Remind them of ACT UP’s call to action, the simple phrase that I grew up living with, but which lost its meaning somewhere along the way. Remind them that once “Silence=Death.” For almost twenty years now silence has been equal to something more complicated, but no less tragic. It now means the unnecessary perpetuation of a costly virus, and a stigmatization of a group of people, that can and should be stopped.
In a way we have come full circle. Because once again, we are at a place where we can say the end of HIV and AIDS can start right now. With you.