“In all this madness, even if it kills every single one of us and there’s no one left to tell the stories, it matters that we love each other well.”
—Paul Richards, who died of AIDS, as remembered by Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie
An invisible virus without any cure; a death sentence for some and not for others. This is all too familiar to me, as a gay man who came out at the age of twenty in the early 1990s, prior to the advent of any treatments for HIV. It felt like the possibility of the disease dominated every aspect of my existence in those tender days.
Summoning the courage to share my truth with loved ones was invariably greeted with the reaction, “Please stay safe. We don’t want you to die.” The reminders were unnecessary. In the gay community—seized by the desire to survive—we were encouraged to assume that anyone we met could be asymptomatic, carrying the disease without knowing that they were HIV-positive.
Every exploratory human connection, every kiss, every expression of love resulted in an insistent anxiety: How safe had I been? Was it safe enough? The only 100 percent guarantee of safety was complete abstinence, which would require sacrificing intimacy altogether.
Fear can have its own exponential curve, as anxiety and reality collide. My first few months of being a "new gay" were greeted with the death of an older cousin; his family too scared to admit that he died of AIDS, and I too scared to tell him, in our final conversation, that I was also gay.
Echoes of the past fill my present. I scan the grocery store aisle: Is anyone sneezing or coughing, or otherwise looking unwell? Is the aisle too crowded? Maybe it’s safer to wait, or come back another day. Anxiety, both familiar and new, silently fills the air, distrust finely woven through it. A new disease, without any cure, is pushing us apart.
And, yet, we cannot escape one another. We need one another. Whether I acknowledge it or not, the guarantee of safety does not exist. We buy groceries: we touch products and surfaces that others have touched; we breathe the air that has touched the lungs of others.
At the store, an older woman asks my husband for help; she cannot read the small print on the label of a product she needs. He leans in and reads it out loud for her. Inches apart, inches too close, inches and feet embodying love and our shared sense of humanity.
May our abiding commitment to Love be the thing which we cannot escape.
Photo copyright marada/CC BY-ND 2.0