Today I was thinking about how the face of HIV has changed. I was telling my husband a story that I had long forgotten.
In 1989, after 3 years of absolute celibacy, I found myself suddenly in a relationship with an HIV negative man. The terror of HIV loomed everywhere but I decided that, as scary as being tested was, I needed to do it. I tested HIV-positive on December 19, 1989 and had been in my new relationship for less than 3 months.
Testing positive in 1989 was pretty much a “death sentence” and I told my new “significant other” (that’s what society allowed us to call our partners back then) that if he wanted to run I would understand. The common knowledge at the time meant that I could expect to live between 6 months and 18 months. My partner did NOT run away from me like many others did when faced with the same dire news of the era.
I will always remember a guy that I used to know from my years studying in the University of Puerto Rico, where I finished my undergraduate degree in theater.
Edwin was gorgeous. Like many of us, Edwin moved to New York, escaping the conservative Puerto Rico of the 80s. I ran into him in a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Edwin was happy to be in New York City and he was in a relationship and looking better than ever.
I would never see Edwin again but a year or so after that encounter, a common friend told me had tested HIV positive and his boyfriend threw him out into the street. Edwin died homeless and alone. This is just one example of the many, many horror stories of the 80s in NYC.
Going back to my story. I was lucky, luckier than Edwin and many other young men that were abandoned by “loved ones”. Together, my partner Paul and I survived the initial shock of HIV. He was scared but his love and compassion were stronger than his fears.
Shortly after, we moved together into an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One day Paul come home with one of his close friends. He was friendly but seemed to be somewhat reserved which I attributed to maybe shyness. Paul had told him about me testing HIV positive but that subject didn’t come up during his visit.
A few days later he called and invited me to go with him to an LGBT dance at Columbia University. Paul couldn’t make it so we headed to the dance together. We were having a wonderful time dancing, chatting, bonding when he asked me to step outside for a “break”. When we got outside, he told me he had something important he had to talk to me about.
We sat down together on a bench outside and he said, “Felix, you are infected. Paul is not infected. Don’t you think it’s best for you not to jeopardize his health and future?”
He went on and on, telling me I was being selfish and strongly urged me to break up with Paul and find someone who was also HIV positive. I stared at him stunned in disbelief. I couldn’t believe my ears. His words penetrated my heart and soul like a knife. I got up from the bench and without saying a word, walked away like I was in a trance. When I got home, I blurted out to Paul exactly what had transpired at the dance with his friend. Paul never spoke to him again.
This whole story is about remembering the horrors of the 80s and how long-term survivors like me, survived these kinds of experiences. Fear was the king of the land and HIV-positive people were the unhappy subjects of a kingdom of fear.
I look back into these memories and realize I am one of the lucky ones. Thirty years after, I am still around, happily married to my husband Denis for five years after twenty years together. The years have filled my heart and mind with stories to tell the new generation of HIV positive people. Stories filled with HOPE, not despair, strength, not surrender. I know firsthand the many tragic stories of shattered dreams, isolation, sickness and death, but having survived these sagas, I’m determined to do everything in my power to render these stories as ancient history not to be repeated.
It is another time and things have changed significantly for the better. HIV is not a death sentence anymore but ignorance is still around. I was asked a few years ago by a friend if sharing a joint was dangerous. He was scared that the saliva in the joint was going to give him HIV. I laughed and explained to him that was not the case. He was very happy and we enjoyed our joint talking about the horrors of the 80s.
It was a beautiful moment, a moment where the old story teller told the young man about the power of fear and the power of knowledge about HIV. He was thankful and I felt very good about myself. As long-term survivors, we must share these experiences with the new generations. The stories of the casualties of a war where fear and ignorance were the most powerful obstacles to survive the dark ages of HIV/AIDS.
We have a responsibility to remember those who didn’t survive the AIDS holocaust by educating the new generations. It is the only way to avoid reliving the dark ages of one of the most horrible pandemics that humankind has seen.
Spread the word, tell your stories. It might be your opportunity to spread the light so needed to dissipate the darkness of ignorance in the 21st century.