By Jason Menard
AIDS is my disease.
Fortunately I don’t mean in the way that I have contracted it, but in the fact that the spectre of AIDS and its complications have been a part of my life ever since I was truly conscious of disease.
Unlike cancer, diabetes, and heart disease – all worthy adversaries, mind you – AIDS was the disease that defined my generation. It was the issue that we were forced to deal with from a very young age, and it’s safe to say it defined the expression of sexuality for many of my demographic.
And as AIDS now turns 25 – a birthday that often is seen as a turning point in the transition from youth to adulthood – it appears to only be getting stronger. AIDS may be my disease, but I have no clue how to fight it, and the casualties are mounting.
Recently, we lost a family friend to complications of AIDS. That not-unexpected turn of events helped to put the disease back in focus. After all, for a while there we were looking at AIDS as an African disease. In North America, the disease is largely being viewed as treatable through the use of antiretrovirals. The “drug cocktail” has enabled North Americans to view AIDS still as a life sentence, but no longer as a quick stint on death row.
Africa, on the other hand, is so far away from our daily conscious that we can push it aside. We can hear about the horrors of HIV and AIDS and how they’re decimating entire populations, but not rationalize that with our more sterilized and sanitary AIDS epidemic on this side of the Atlantic. A human tragedy is only one when it can touch you – otherwise it remains too far in the realm of the abstract to directly impact us.
The last time I felt that detachment from AIDS was during my youth. Naiveté, innocence, and a healthy measure of arrogance, meant that I couldn’t truly understand the impact AIDS was having in the community around me. Sitting with the boys in the locker room, we’d make off-colour jokes, laugh nervously at expressions of sexuality that we only half-understood – but of which we had to fake so as not to reveal our immaturity, and compartmentalized the disease as something we would never be exposed to. After all, we weren’t gay. We didn’t know Rock Hudson. We were safe, or so we thought. Immature attempts at gallows humour were our defense against the unknown.
It wasn’t until later on in life that we learn that we’re never truly safe. Beyond the fear (and hate) mongering and ignorance of those who claimed that you could contract AIDS from toilet seats or sharing a glass, we learned that AIDS was not just a disease for others. It wasn’t just a gay or IV drug user disease (a pairing that far too often was lumped together), but rather a disease that any of us could get if we were irresponsible.
Sexuality, frightening enough on its own, became downright terrorizing. High school issues went beyond simply questioning the value of teaching sexual education in the classroom, but rather how we could justify not putting condom machines in the bathroom.
So where are we today, now that AIDS is 25 years old? We have a generation of youth who have grown up knowing nothing but AIDS in their lives. And, unlike those of us who were raised during the first, uncertain, days of the disease, they seem to have less fear of the issue. Perhaps the advent of these drug cocktails, allowing HIV-sufferers to live for years in relative good health, has prevented today’s youth from seeing the horrors and ravages that AIDS can impose upon the body.
My introduction to AIDS was one of emaciated bodies, feeble eyes that stared off into the distance, and the certainty of a rapid decent into eternal slumber. Today’s face of AIDS is robust, active, and – most importantly – alive in every sense of the word. It almost makes you think that living with the disease isn’t that bad after all.
And that’s why, at 25 years old, AIDS has matured and is more dangerous than ever. High-risk sexual behaviours are on the rise, simply because the consequences don’t seem that bad. HIV-infected stars like Magic Johnson represent both the best and worst of the epidemic: he shows that you can live an active and full life even with the disease, but at the same time, his relative robust persona diminishes the very real danger that HIV and AIDS presents.
The North American face of AIDS is simply a façade. The true nature of the disease is there for all to see as it ravages Africa. Unfortunately, we as a society just don’t care to look.
AIDS may be my disease, but the one that I encountered a quarter of a century ago has gotten wilier and more insidious. At 25, AIDS has matured. Instead of showing its age, it appears to be in the full bloom of youth. And that’s the scariest thing of all.
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