This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.
-Angels in America, Tony Kushner
One thing that surprises me, over and over and over again, is how very compressed the timeline of AIDS is. It reached plague levels in the 1980s; growing up in the ’90s and ’00s, it loomed large as a huge, terrifying specter in all my health classes. We knew you couldn’t get it from hugging or kissing or from toilet seats, but the message received was that you could still get it shockingly easily via sex or drug use or maybe, just maybe, blood transfusions. And now it’s — almost like it’s just another disease. Treatable. Preventable. Survivable.
This is mind-boggling.
Here’s my personal story:
In 2004, I was the lead in a play called The Inner Circle: Changing Times, about a high school girl who contracts HIV after her heterosexual first sexual experience. We toured to high schools and juvenile correction facilities around the city and even up to Fairbanks, performing the play and doing informational Q&As. (I got asked a lot whether I was HIV+ myself.) It was one of the better teaching plays I’ve ever come across: pedantic, obviously — the penultimate scene was literally me standing up and explaining to “my class” what it was like to live with HIV — but with good character stuff as well.
In retrospect, I’m kind of torn over some aspects of the play, in particular its choice of protagonist. Sarah was a straight (white, thanks to the casting) girl who contracted HIV while losing her virginity. The point was obviously that HIV could happen to anyone — even someone who didn’t deserve it, like Sarah, who was relatable, unlike gay men or ethnic minorities or drug users or the economically disadvantaged. That’s what TV Tropes might call Unfortunate Implications. Cynically, I also call it the right move for the time: our audiences tended to be mostly white kids in public high schools in a very conservative state in the middle of the Bush years. A play about a squeaky-clean white straight female protagonist was more likely to get a green light from the school district than one with a gay male protagonist would. And to its credit, the play didn’t exactly portray Sarah as saintly.
But it’s the kind of play I can’t quite imagine getting the same level of traction in most American schools anymore. I can’t imagine RENT or Angels in America being written today. A decade away from my own immersion in AIDS activism and theatre and thirty years away from when these plays were set, RENT and Angels and Jeffrey and The Normal Heart and even The Inner Circle are period pieces, from a time where AIDS was unstoppable and implacable and scarier than anything else in the world. A time we don’t live in anymore. A time fewer and fewer of us will remember as the world moves on.
I have never lived in a world where AIDS didn’t exist. But one day soon, it’s going to be a disease of the past — and, I think, sooner than I ever dreamed possible when I was growing up. Oh, I know we haven’t beaten it yet — just a few blocks away from me, Gay City pushes HIV/STI testing for Capitol Hill’s gay and bi men and trans individuals who have sex with men — but we’re getting there. You know that there’s such a thing as pre-exposure prophylaxis now, right? And post-exposure prophylaxis? Even the idea that there’s a drug you can take to reduce your chances of contracting HIV makes me want to cry, it seems so magical.
This is not a universal experience, and that’s important to remember; access to antiretroviral therapy varies from economic class to economic class and from country and country. I’m loath to make any sweeping statements about “The situation is much worse in Africa than the USA” in spite of the conventional wisdom that that’s the case, because Africa is not a monolith and the statistics vary widely from country to country. In the United Republic of Tanzania, the number of deaths from AIDS dropped from 130,000 in 2006 to 84,000 in 2011, a 35% drop if I’m doing my math right — in Nigeria, they dropped from 220,000 in 2006 to 210,000 in 2011, only a 4.5% drop. Generally, though, the epidemic is much more prevalent in African countries than in most European or American countries, and access to ARV therapy is not a given. (I’d welcome more information from people who know their stats and data better than I do!)
But the trend, worldwide and at home, is that fewer people are dying of AIDS-related illnesses, and more people are living longer with HIV.
It’s unbelievable. It’s miraculous. Prior Walters, it turns out, is prophetic: this disease has been the end of many, but not nearly all, and the world only spins forward.
For more information on AIDS treatment in the US, including locating testing centers and information on what coverage the Affordable Care Act provides for HIV/AIDS patients, visit http://aids.gov/
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. Stay safe.