30 Years

2011 marks the 30th Anniversary of reported AIDS cases. It started in 1981.

The most recent studies have traced HIV back to 1921.


My first experience with HIV & AIDS came as it came to the rest of the world. It was early 1981 (specifically, AIDS was first reported on June 5th, 1981, through the diagnosis of 5 men in Los Angeles). I was barely out of the closet when I heard the nightly news story referencing “gay cancer”. It was beyond vague at that point and seemed to be isolated to major metropolitan areas. It started off being reported either by the opportunistic infections which were a result of HIV infection, or as GRID…gay related immune deficiency. The term AIDS was introduced in 1982, after it became apparent that the disease was not isolated to the gay community.

In 1981, although I wasn’t a virgin, I wasn’t sexually active. Shortly afterward, however, in 1982, I entered into my first relationship with another man, at the same time I came out of the closet. He was much older and as far as I knew, we were monogamous.

About three years later we moved to New Jersey, a stone’s throw from New York, one of the epicenters of the burgeoning disease. Still, even though we never practiced safe sex, I assumed we were safe. At the time I didn’t consider the fact that his being 15 years older meant I was sleeping with more than just him. Even three years into our relationship, in 1985, HIV and AIDS was fairly vague.

My second relationship was with a man who told me he was HIV positive before we ever had sex. We were adventurous in the one year we he was healthy, half of the two years we were together, but still, I practiced sex safely.

After that I was single for a short time and had a lot of sex, all of it safe. Then I met my current husband who I’ve been with for 15 years now, also monogamous.

Although I’ve been as safe as possible, given that HIV broke into the public at virtually the exact moment I came out of the closet as a gay man, it’s amazing I’ve escaped it. A great number of my close friends, too many to count, have not…

Ben was my first…

I moved with my partner to Lake Tahoe in 1985, beginning my 20 year hotel career by taking a management job at a local timeshare. My boss was a 32 year old semi-closeted mama’s boy with a 21 year old boyfriend. Ben and I, being the same age and of the same sarcastic temperament, became fast friends. While I’d made the jump from closeted to semi closeted, it was strange to find a slightly younger version of myself, in a more conservative area, who was so free and so open. Ben worked at one of the local casinos.



About a year later, I found myself standing behind Ben, my hands resting on his shoulders, in a local, South Lake Tahoe doctor’s office. He hadn’t felt well and had gone in for tests. He’d called me to meet him and I found myself in the examination room while we waited for the doctor to return with test results. Ben was nervous, but no more so than anyone waiting in such a situation. I joked, trying to relax him.

What happened after that plays back in slow motion. If anything, it played slower at the time. I can only describe the expression on the doctor’s face as he forced himself into the room as absolute terror. His pallor was pale, his eyes, behind a pair of thin, wire framed glasses, were glassy, and he was breaking into a sweat. The nurse behind him was less emotional, her eyes not focused on us, but rather looking down, then darting around the room. She seemed to be an automaton, focused on duties, in direct contrast to the authority in the room. Authority rested with the doctor, who looked like he would faint at any moment.

The doctor fumbled, worked to find words, then blurted out that Ben had AIDS. Those words held a completely different meaning in 1986. Their potency was founded in our location, South Lake Tahoe, which on that issue, at that time, might as well have been some third world nation where running water was hard to find.

While Ben dissolved into shock, I asked the doctor what we should do next. All he could utter was that Ben should “get his affairs in order”, in other words, prepare to die. That statement, playing like a line from a film, defines diagnosis of HIV/AIDS during those years.

There were no answers.

Six months later I visited Ben in the hospital. Ben, one of the most vibrant, expressive, fun loving and  honest people I’ve ever known, was shielded behind a tight barricade of bright yellow warnings and symbols of danger and risk. To visit someone then with AIDS was to seemingly risk a war zone, it was that marked.

There was no possibility of moving into Ben’s space without outfitting from head to toe in medical costume. A full body suit, slippers, gloves, hairnet and mask. No costume, no admittance. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was for Ben’s protection, not mine. In those days, visiting a friend with AIDS was a decisive choice requiring a suit of armor which by its very nature, separated you from your loved one.

Ben died three days later, at the age of 23.

Then, it seemed endless…

Bobby was my first seemingly obvious, yet closeted, gay friend.

We met in elementary school and became best friends, traveling through those early years together, in Clovis. Clovis, in the 1970’s, was far more opinionated and prejudiced that it is today. Bobby wasn’t out, of course, and neither was I. But if anyone could have been labeled back then, it was Bobby. Still, it never seemed to get under his skin. He dated girls, occasionally, but his feminine mannerisms, insightful humor and rebellious nature landed him in the world of homosexuality.

As with most of my close friends, Bobby loved life. He was funny, sarcastic and daring. As I maneuvered quietly into my budding sexuality, I appreciated any boy brazen enough to risk the criticism of the world. Bobby did that every day. He was physically threatened, verbally abused and obvious to most, but Bobby never let it define who he was. He marched through school every day with a smile on his face and a cynical joke on his lips. He was, in so many ways, my hero.

He was also my first sexual experience. It was at his house, with his parents away. We were fifteen and we started off swimming naked. That gave way to clothes which led to strip poker. Over the next few years we had sex at least three more times, somewhat surreptitiously yet always in areas where we might be caught. Bobby exhibited the daring I wished I could embrace.

After middle school, when I moved away to Alaska, I lost track with him. Many years later, during a Fresno Pride Parade, we caught up. Sadly, he became infected and died a few years ago. As with Ben, his voice was a great loss to independence and rebellion.

Jack was my closest friend in high school.

In 1976 my family moved to Alaska so my father, a truck driver, could take a job on the Alaskan pipeline. For the next few years my mother, older brother and I moved back and forth a few times, until we ended up, for the bulk of my high school years, in Eagle River, Alaska.

In the middle of my sophomore year I auditioned for the drama department and became an actor in the school’s plays. Jack was tenured at that point and we became fast friends. He was also a male cheerleader, and again, as Bobby before him, flamboyant and an obvious target for the homophobic jocks inside the walls.

Jack and I had a very close friendship and shared the deep emotions inherent in high school relationships. After graduation, although separated by distance, we remained close. Enjoying the freedoms of the flight attendant he’d become, Jack flew to Fresno several times and we traveled together. In my mind, I knew we’d be friend forever.

It was during a trip to San Francisco, when I questioned Jack about his obvious weight loss, that he confessed to me his HIV status. It brought me closer to him but in many ways, it created a divide. This was the early 1990’s, a time holding only toxic solutions to HIV infection, and mired in ridicule. Jack was bitter about what he was going through and tried to deny it. He died in 1994.

Doug was one of a kind.

He was one of Fresno’s best known “queens”, famous for his post Pride parties. I don’t remember when I first met Doug, but as with other friends, we connected through humor and sarcasm. We became close after my first and second relationship. Doug had an infectious,  voracious zest for life. What happened to Doug never seemed to deflect his love of every day existence. Doug lived for life, the very taste of it, regardless of its manifestation.

Doug was one the most down to earth people I’ve ever met, yet his status on the social scene was unparalleled. Everyone in the Fresno LGBT Community knew who Doug was. I remember at one of the last Pride parties he threw (and they were legendary) we had to post someone at the back gate to refuse those without invitations, since literally everyone wanted to come and he’d run out of room. His parties had just become too big.

Stephen was sassy, and not often in a nice way.

One of my favorite stories about Stephen was after he’d moved from Fresno to San Francisco and was back for a weekend visit. We were at the Express and Stephen, who was easily moved to conceit by living in “the city”, looked out over the packed dance floor and looked back with sarcastic expression to only utter, “I’m sure they’re very nice people”.

I hired him as a desk clerk, in a local hotel I managed at the time. It was all I could do to control his sarcastic wit and wandering eyes, but as with so many of my close friends, I’d once again been enraptured by his wit, charm and evil sense of humor.

We remained close after he moved to San Francisco. In fact, his SF apartment became my refuge, and I’d visit and stay at least one weekend out the month, usually two. He frankly shared his HIV positive status while immediately negating any dire consequences normally associate with it. He was under a doctor’s care and was on medication but never made it an issue or even cared to talk about it.  He felt like the younger brother I never had, and we shared more than I care to mention here.

His life ended in suicide, not AIDS, but all facts are entangled together.

Michael was my second partner.

He told me before I chose to be with him that he was HIV positive. This was in 1993, before the revolutionary drugs replaced the toxic results of chemicals such as AZT.  His face showed genuine disbelief when I told him his HIV status made no difference to me. At that point, in 1993, I’d been through enough with the disease to know that it was possible to protect myself, as well as exactly how to do it.

Michael had a real problem though, despite being one of the most enlightened people I’ve ever known. He believed, as many did at that point in time, that he could beat HIV through vitamins and holistic methods. I even agreed with him. In 1993 HIV medications were so toxic that an entire movement rose out of the denial of that regimen.

Unfortunately, we were wrong.

One day Michael was perfectly healthy and the next I was taking him to the emergency room. In the span of 48 hours he went from being a perfectly healthy man to a man on life support. He was in the hospital for month, and only survived for another year after that.

The next year, revolutionary HIV medications came on the market, and soon after, people stopped dying every day.

There are so many beyond these brief remembrances…Frank, Jeff, Mike, John, David, Edward, Sean, Barry, Tony, Steve…and on and on and on…

Something shifted in me when I realized I could no longer remember how many friends I’d lost. To have lost so many people at such an early age is hard to deal with. The depth of this 30 year anniversary of HIV and AIDS is monumental.

It almost seems unreal.


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