Tonight I attended a screening of the film, Desert Migration. The film is a documentary about long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS. The film tells a powerful story of different individuals, all long-term HIV/AIDS survivors, living in Palm Springs, CA. I have read about the complex set of issues facing long term HIV/AIDS survivors. I was very moved by the film and the filmmaker’s powerful way of letting each man tell their story in a raw, unfiltered manner.
I remember learning about AIDS from a therapist that I was seeing in the 1980s. It frightened me to learn about a disease that was rapidly spreading through the gay community. My therapist knew that I occasionally went to the baths and she warned me against casual, unprotected sex. The news of this new disease clearly frightened me. After I learned of AIDS I never went to the baths again.
A few years later, after having sex with a man I had met at a bar on a business trip to Chicago, I got very frightened that I might have contracted AIDS, even though we did not do anything I would now classify as risky behavior. I was frightened by the disease but also afraid of the stigma of AIDS and did not feel that I could ask my doctor for the AIDS test. I did not want the test in my medical record as I had read stories of men losing their jobs because of AIDS. I was living in New York City at the time and went up to Harlem on the A train to a free clinic to get tested. I remember calling in a week later with a code I had been given to get my results: negative. At the time I had to have the person on the phone explain to me what negative meant because I wanted to be sure I understood the results clearly.
In 1993 I married a woman and moved to suburbia. There is a long story here, but I will save it for another essay. I kept up with what was happening in the gay community through the newspapers and TV news but lived in a world far removed from ACT UP and the protests of that period. I only began to come out about five years ago and felt that I had a lot of catching up to do
Like other men I have met in the last few years who came out later in life, we all faced getting educated freshly on HIV and the risks of man on man sex. I also had to learn about new treatments, like the drug Truvada, also known more generally as PrEP or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, that is reducing or eliminating the risk of infection for many people, and make a decision if PrEP was right for me.
I have read books and seen movies about the AIDS crisis and the men who died. One of the reasons I wanted to see the film was to understand what it was like to be a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor. The film did a beautiful job of telling the stores of about thirteen different men. Some of the men had developed a strong community and were surviving and living happy lives while other men lived isolated lonely lives. Some of the men had optimism and hope about their lives while other men had given up and were waiting and wanting to die. All the men spoke of the daily challenges HIV/AIDS had caused in their lives: physical; mental; social; and financial.
The film was followed by a panel discussion which gave more color and depth to the story. Some of the panelists were long term HIV survivors while others worked in the HIV treatment field. There was an interesting discussion on the topic of HIV/AIDS and trauma. One panelist explored the topic of the trauma of HIV/AIDS combined with other traumas like poverty and homelessness and how those traumas combined impact a person’s life.
There was a discussion of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and how it was now being researched and discussed in the context of HIV/AIDS. The panel spoke about the differences in the health of the men who had nearly died early in the AIDS crisis and had been brought back to life by the drugs developed in the early 1990s from the young men and women contracting HIV today and going on life-saving drugs soon after their diagnosis. They also spoke about the large numbers of men and women diagnosed with HIV but not on any medical treatment because of the stigma of HIV and AIDS today.
I was first exploring my sexuality in the wild hedonistic period of the late 1970s I have thought many times over the years about what my life would have been like had I been more sexually active at the time. The extreme partying, drugs and casual sex of the 1970s frightened me. I would probably not be alive today if I had been more sexually active in my twenties. I also have some survivor’s guilt for what I missed.
I knew a few men who died of AIDS, but it was a small number compared to other men of that era. One older man, during the panel discussion after the film, stood up and said that he had stopped counting when over 100 men he knew had died of AIDS. That is trauma on a scale I can not even begin to imagine.
As I watched the film, heard the panel after the film, and spoke to many of the men and women at the reception afterward, I felt so grateful for my life today. I feel lucky to be alive now and proud to be out. Even though I was ‘missing’ during this tragic period of gay history, I was so happy to be learning more through a powerful and important film.