World AIDS Day: Looking Back

This post first appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.

I don’t recall when I first heard about AIDS.I was 11 when the first cases were documented by the CDC in 1981, but it took a while before the news percolated down to me. I remember being 12 or 13 and the panic that hit everywhere. Suddenly, there was a sexually transmitted disease (as they were called then) that was killing people and nobody really knew how it spread. The complacency around STIs that penicillin gave us for a few decades suddenly evaporated and freaked out doesn’t even begin to cover it.

There were people who refused to shake hands or even be in the same room as people with AIDS. There were people who were worried about sharing food or kissing, just in case. Of course, the fact that AIDS was linked to homosexuality (at first, it was called Gay Related Immune Deficiency since the early reported cases were gay men), and then drug users, was part of that. And making it even harder was the fact that President Reagan didn’t even say the word “AIDS” until 1987. Surgeon-General C. Everett Koop’s article The Early Days of AIDS, as I Remember Them is really worth reading.

In many ways, AIDS is part of why I became a sexuality educator. I came out as queer in college and joined the campus peer outreach group. Naturally, I got a lot of questions about HIV and safer sex. When I learned about those topics, I discovered that I needed to find out about sexual communication and negotiation, which got me into relationships and sexual practices. The next thing I knew, I was a sex educator!

It’s hard to explain how scared people were back then. The stigma people with HIV face is still really strong, but this was before any celebrities like Magic Johnson, Freddie Mercury, or Rock Hudson came out as HIV-positive. Living in the suburbs of New Jersey, I didn’t know anyone with HIV and as far as I knew, nobody I knew did, either. And politicians like Jesse Helms blocked funding for research because they were convinced that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality.

I was in San Francisco for a couple of weeks during the summer of 1990 and even in the face of the decimation of the gay community and the deep grief that went along with it, there was still a certain sense of excitement. Groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation had come together to develop strategies for political action. Although to be fair, a lot of folks got involved because it was a great way to develop some horizontal networks. The slogan “An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail” was definitely put into practice.

Safer sex parties like Carol Queen’s & Robert Morgan’s “Queen of Heaven” gatherings became another form of community activism. They weren’t just places to get laid. By creating rules and expectations around safer sex, they helped people see that condoms, gloves, and dental dams didn’t have to get in the way of having a hot time. Participation also became a badge of defiance in the face of lackluster or absent information about safer sex from medical or governmental sources. Communities formed with the intention of helping people stay alive, despite the official silence that was costing lives. Groups like the Safer Sex Sluts created live demos of safer sex techniques to show how hot safer sex could be.

Eventually, of course, some medical treatments were developed. AZT and then protease inhibitors became available, at least for people with the money and/or insurance to cover them. And the government finally got behind safer sex messages, schools created curricula (though we’re still fighting to make them accurate, non-judgmental, and inclusive), and more people came out as HIV-positive. Attitudes are slowly changing.

But there’s still work to do. There are still plenty of people who think that HIV and other SITs are a punishment for sex. (It makes me wonder if they think that the flu is a punishment for riding public transit.) Funding for research is still scarce. And lots of folks are willing to keep their heads in the sand as long as it’s “those people over there,” even though we’re all just a few degrees of separation away from each other. For that matter, we’re still struggling to get safer sex education to young people, despite the fact that it decreases the rates of STI transmission (not to mention, it’s much more cost-effective to prevent disease than it is to treat it). And this school rejected an application from a 13-year old because he’s HIV-positive. So we have a long road ahead of us.

Safer sex is still a really important topic. Even if you’re in a monogamous relationship and choose to not use condoms or other barriers, the more you know about safer sex, the more you can help the folks around you protect themselves, especially teens and young people. It’s only a hindrance or an interruption to your hot fun if you let it be! Check out our how-to articles, with lots of info about choosing condoms, tips for making them more effective, ways to use gloves and dental dams, and more. Remember, safe sex is hot sex. If you’re doing it right.

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