I first head about “gay related immune deficiency” around 1980; I’m not sure of the exact year. If I recall correctly there was some speculation that “GRID” was somehow related to Legionnaires disease. The idea that it could be some sort of plague was hinted at. It didn’t seem to be something I needed to worry about, but I didn’t dismiss it.
By the mid-80’s the “GRID” acronym has been replaced by “AIDS” and was considered a major health concern. By 1990 it was a full blown scare, and had been politicized. (By “politicized” I mean gay men were being blamed for the problem.) By 1991 Earvin (“Magic”) Johnson announced he had AIDS, and it became something heterosexuals had to deal with directly.
By 1994 some friends of mine were HIV positive, and a couple of years later they died. I moved on with my life, and AIDS became something to be dealt with rationally, and not as something that ushered in the apocalypse (of whatever sort), and not part of some dystopian fantasy, and not divine retribution.
And the thing is we all moved on with our lives. That makes sense. But it also makes sense to revisit the idea of what AIDS represented.
A friend of mine gave me a copy of a book written during the mid 1990s, when AIDS was still a mystery and gay men were being bashed as the unclean perpetrators of a deadly disease.
The book is “The Two Headed Dragon: Exploring the Gifts of AIDS” by Sean Hoag, a social worker who happened to by gay, and happened to be HIV positive.
Hoag’s voice is clear, consistently objective, rational, and compassionate. The premise of the book is that AIDS is a fearsome beast, and (at that time) connoted a fearsome destiny — but it can be faced with dignity and good will. Having AIDS doesn’t define a person as being without value, or unclean, or evil, and it doesn’t mean living in horror or shame or disgrace. It’s an opportunity to face the universe at large and find a meaning that goes beyond fear and hatred. And that is the gift of AIDS: the opportunity to transcend the pain, suffering, and death.
The book is written as a series of stories about AIDS patients, along with Hoag’s comments about therapy, dealing with terminal patients, and the philosophy of disease (Hoag was a licensed therapist). The stories are presented in a matter-of-fact way, free of judgement. Mostly about adults, but in some cases children. The observations about choices and opportunities are well taken; the stories about children are heart-breaking.
As it so happens when the book was presented to me I was in the middle of reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning,” which deals with similar themes — death and suffering. Hoag’s presentation of how AIDS offered two very different paths for destiny was very much like Frankl’s discussion about the death camps during WWII. The upshot of which is that when we are confronted with the most dire kinds of outcomes, we have a choice about how to face it. Or not face it.
“The Two Headed Dragon” is a good read, clearly written, and honest. All in all it’s a gentle reminder about how to deal with something ferocious: mortality.
Sean Hoag died in 1995, age 42.