Sunday, November 29, 2015


I have a hard time addressing the issue of HIV-AIDS for a number of reasons. One is that I care too much, but that's more a result than a reason.  Another reason is the irrationality of it all.  I do not understand the stigma.  It does not match my experience.

These elegant gay men did not attend NU, because they were black.

The first gay men I knew were people studying theatre at Northwestern University.  Subterraneously, the School of Speech in the late Fifties had become welcoming to closeted young gay theatre people, partly because of a half-acknowledged and extremely effective acting teacher who was female-partnered.  I say partnered because it’s impossible to imagine these dignified persons rolling around on a bed waving sex toys, which is usually how people see non-conforming identities.  Theirs was truly a partnership.  They didn’t live together until retirement but traveled together on vacations.  In summer they cooperated to manage a repertory resort theatre.

The gay men, frankly, were using me as a disguise.  Eager, childish, introverted, I made no demands.  They were prosperous, handsome, gifted, generous people.  I thought all gays were like that.  Even now very few of them will talk about it but most seem in good health.

The first person I knew personally who had AIDS was a fellow Unitarian minister from Canada in 1987.  He was young, but we collaborated on a theology of Landscape: the Prairie, and that brought us together.  At ministers’ meetings he had a little pill box with a timer in it and we grew used to its beeping.  In spite of an MD partner and an important minister father who knew how to use clout, he died.  It has not been a secret.  The meds simply were not developed in time to save him.

Over the years since, I’ve heard rumors now and then about former students -- often the most gifted ones, dying of AIDS.  It almost seemed to be a natural consequence due to being exceptional, independent, creative.  Especially because of the Unitarian connection to the Transcendentalists, I related it to the plague of tuberculosis that killed so many prominent New England thinkers. Thoreau, for instance, and the sister of Louisa May Alcott.

Ho-Chunk Girls with smallpox

Because much of my life has been involved with the Blackfeet reservation, I know lots of poor, alcoholic, mentally damaged, lost souls, but few of them are alone unless they fight off everyone, which some do.  To be Indian or affiliated with Indians is to be in community.  When one reads Indian history, one meets the grisly ghost of smallpox.  It was a disease of Indians, a racist disease, because Indians genetically had no immunity.  Another epidemic nearly claimed my mother as a child: the Spanish Flu, named for a country that was blameless, a viral killer of the young and healthy.  The death toll exceeded that of WWI.

When I became an animal control officer in Portland, going door to door to solve problems, I met isolated old people, drunks, loonies, teen mothers, parolees, and a whole household of cheerful transvestites.  Because AC officers were technically part of the sheriff’s department, specialized deputies, the curtain that ordinarily keeps people from knowing about extreme events was pulled back, and fucking the Thanksgiving turkey was the least of it.  We saw death in all its animalness, including human.  We saw deadly living conditions.  The street kids in Portland -- who have the advantage of public fountains big enough to bathe in downtown -- clustered up, sometimes in plain sight.  One old woman lived in the women’s restroom of the Portlandia Building through the winter.  Some called her “the Bride” because she wrapped herself in white plastic.

Economics can easily be a plague.  Get one step down and you’re forced down two more.  When the only thing keeping you alive (food stamps, day care, housing, clinics) is de-funded in order to afford a new sports coliseum, I call it “murder by pencil”.  This economic murder is the withholding of help from anyone stigmatized and the constant effort to stigmatize MORE people.  The idea is that they don’t deserve help, that they are Other, wogs, subhuman, Devil’s spawn, or simply livestock kept only because they are productive in terms of reproduction and work.  They are sacrifices in the name of greed.  The Great Scandal is that the most conservative pencil murderers are the ones who claim to be Christian.  And of course, by underfunding programs meant to help people or by creating impassable thresholds, the government is a big-time killer.

But things are changing, the backlash is beginning.  When the Mormons recently attacked homosexuality thousands simply cleared the pews.  Who expected that?  Clearly not their own leaders.  It happened all at once so onlookers noticed, but it’s been happening gradually to many denominations.  Ever since the Pill separated sex from babies, everything has been “scrambled eggs.”  The old rules had been enforced by unwanted pregnancy.  But we separated sex from love all by ourselves.   One of the worst scrambles has been the abandonment of boys by families who instead of fathers either have nobody or a parade of moochers.

I have not thrown myself into the AIDS fight, at least not exclusively.  I try to keep up by reading, but I confess that I’m not a narrow-issue person.  I look for the deep constants, the biology triggers gone wrong, the constraints of a changing planet.  It seems to me that ebola and HIV and rabies are not so different from each other -- all deadly viruses.  But in our minds they are anchored by their origins in our consciousness.  Rabies in America is still a small town issue, the previously trustworthy dog gone mad.  Ebola plainly “belongs to” Africa.  And HIV is gay, connected to Biblically defined sin and flamboyant licentiousness in SF.  Consciously or not, HIV's early efficiency at killing and the idea that it was a deserved punishment made leaders secretly approach it as surefire death. (“Whew!  Now we’re rid of those troublemakers!”)  Now that science has unraveled the mysteries of the cells almost to the final knots (there's really no such thing), and people can be saved (at great cost for which read “profit” for manufacturers and professional advice-givers), we’re stuck because we still think HIV is not a virus but bad behavior.  If only bad morals would kill the oppressors instead of the wicked.  

By accident and by osmosis, in my mind I have the morality and value of the gay community upside down from what other more conventional people think.  Partly because of the men I knew in an elite, privileged community and partly because of an arts education (haute couture, ballet, post-modern philosophy) that has always valued the European notion that the atypical achiever is liable to be gay and a crusader for justice, I see their situation in regard to AIDS as more like that of the Jewish intellectual -- vulnerability to holocaust by brutes and dictators. aided by public resentment over imagined greater prosperity.

Young, gay Oliver Sacks

Therefore, recovery from the Holocaust (if there can be such a thing), should be relevant to gays.  Needle drugs are an “evil” source of HIV now, quite apart from sex.   But the need to get money for drugs means paid sex (as an alternative to theft and other violence) which spreads the infection that pushes the need for money for drugs again -- both the drugs to address the virus and the drugs to address the addiction -- which is now pressed by the need for relief from providing paid sex.  A knot in an economic rope.

There are two consequences of this knot: distrust of the government and other institutions since they are NOT understanding or responding in any effective way; and more pencil death, defunding.  More and more money for practical solutions is being diverted to high-priced ineffective “research,” guiding money to the already wealthy, paying minimum wage to the resentful clinic clerks who throw drugs into a bag for a customer they despise. More knots.


I am not gay and I am not male and I am not HIV poz.  So?  I’m human.  Maybe that counts.  Maybe if that counted for everyone, we’d at least reliably get HIV meds to everyone who needs them without having to wrap them in contempt.  My problem is that gay poz guys don’t believe I can be sympathetic or even understand.  Just like any guys, they think I’m a nuisance.  And I am.  I’m like that person sitting on a cushion, leaning against the wall, watching, listening, not smoking.  They assume criticism.  They're right.  I am criticizing the whole system.

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