By Richard Giannone
The International Conference on AIDS is announcing the details about Trudeva, the new drug from Gilead Science that has shown to be effective in lowering the risk of HIV infection. It’s a single pill that in Brazilian trials reduces the rate of infection. The drug is expensive at about $12,000 a year. But with 15,000 new infections a year and 1.2 million already infected with HIV, the drug is well worth the price.
After three long decades that changed AIDS from a gay to universal disease, the medical breakthrough comes none too soon. This news provides a heartening accompaniment to the march on Washington reminding us to Keep the Promise on AIDS. Loud cheers all around!
I join the ovation not in the exhausted voice of a gay man of 77, but with the renewed conviction of an eyewitness to the now silent agony of early sufferers of AIDS in my Greenwich Village neighborhood in the 1980s. The unrelieved pain of friends and neighbors remains with me, always wrenching my heart, always sharpening. Back then, life was running down like a clock. Far from lessening the grief AIDS caused, recalling the sights and sounds of misery — especially the premature dying of the young — has deepened into a moral calling to bear witness to the ravages of AIDS.
Many early activists called state and church in account. With AIDS exploding through the 1980s, playwright Larry Kramer in 1987 founded The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power to demand lower prices of medications and access to experimental therapies. Militants broke into The New York Stock Exchange to protest the exorbitant price of the one approved AIDS drug. Militants occupied the pews of St. Patrick Cathedral on 5th Avenue.
I venture to bring the shadowed past alive into the present in my newly published Hidden: Reflections on Gay Life, AIDS, and Spiritual Desire. Hidden provides a window on the first religious steps that led to the July 22 march and conference. In the 1980s, when AIDS brought shame and denunciation, it was the people with AIDS who revealed the truth about the body that medical science has come to treat and that the church neglected.
Though the Catholic church hadn’t been mother to her gay children, some came anyway to the 5:30 afternoon Mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village. Clothes drooped on emaciated men in their mid-twenties to early forties. Pustules rutted the withered flesh of several. Some sported baseball caps to keep facial lesions shaded out of sight of onlookers. A few men used make-up to screen darkened facial spots. But nothing covered the bones of suffering or muted the sound of sickness from the pews punctuating the words of God from the altar.
Living in wrack and ruin, these men brought life back into a church that left them for dead. They walked to the Lord’s Table for sustenance, more life. The vitality of their appeal stood out in sharp relief against the lifeless Christianity that vilified their gayness. Such spiritual defiance taught me what I needed to know and need to remember.
AIDS was our passion. Its agony thrust gay life into the vortex of twentieth-century history. This previously censored truthfulness came to rest in rows of church benches for all to bear gayness in mind as part of providential history. Their perseverance asked me to trust the body. I did.
At the liturgy, persons with HIV were not seen as the reviled carriers of plague rejected by society. Bodies that were hosts for infections sought the host of sacred healing. Their return to the home that spurned them showed that the divine spirit was far beyond any barrier of separation that humans erected for themselves. The love that dare not say its name howled out from its heart with what voice it had left to reclaim its place in God’s plan. Worship modeled a church and society to which I felt I could belong.
One regular parishioner anchors this back-story. He stood tall with a cane supporting him. He neither wore a hat nor used cosmetics to cover his malignant tumors. Such complete confidence in his skin inscribed with scarlet marks expressed a quiet and intractable dignity. He had faith in his body. He was not ashamed of his gift from God, his own skin, which is something to think about. In slow motion this young man was bringing his entire person of ensouled flesh for the fullness life of his body. One day he no longer showed up. It was like that. AIDS was a disease of disappearance.
No longer. As my memory goes backward, my heart hurls forward to reminisce about the future that medical science presages for HIV/AIDS.
Richard Giannone, emeritus professor at Fordham University, is the author of Hidden: Reflections on Gay Life, AIDS, and Spiritual Desire. Read his previous blog posts: “National HIV Testing Day and the history of HIV testing” and “The anxiety of AIDS recognition.”