I have two degrees in theatre. In the 1980’s I was working professionally in the Chicago theatre community. There was no way to escape AIDS.
By the end of the decade, I could’ve covered the walls of my one-bedroom apartment with the AIDS Quilt panels of people I knew. I’d left the theatre to be a professional fundraiser, mostly working with AIDS organizations.
Most were men, though not all. Some were classmates from college, or colleagues from one production or another. Some had lived at one of the AIDS residential programs I worked for. Some had been volunteers of mine; one was my assistant.
I remember picking up a coffee-table book about the Names Project, and staring at the cover: one of the quilt panels was for a guy I’d worked with in college. That’s how I found out he was dead.
I developed a bit of paranoia in those days whenever I lost touch with one of my many gay friends. No news was rarely good news. As recently as last year, a name came up in conversation, and because we’d lost track of him, we assumed he had died long ago of AIDS.
In the fall of 1991, I went through a stretch where someone I knew died every week for 11 weeks in a row. When the eleventh one died, I booked a seat on Amtrak, Chicago to Los Angeles: two days, no phones, no conversation unless I wanted it. Of course, I couldn’t really escape, but that was how I coped.
If you had told me in 1981 that 30 years later there would be no vaccine, no cure…that you would find people living with HIV and AIDS in virtually every country on earth…that there would still be a stigma attached to it…I would’ve said you were nuts.
As it turns out you wouldn’t have been nuts.
But you would’ve been right.