By Jonathan Shuffield, OUTSpoken Radio
Picture it: May of last year in my tiny one bedroom apartment. It’s a cooler day for what is typical in early summer here; I am sitting around the living room with a small group of gay men. The age range is broad, from just baby gays of 18 all the way up to, well, my age. We are there to watch HBO Pictures’ The Normal Heart based on the Tony Award-winning play by Larry Kramer.
As I’m certain all of you know (and if not maybe don’t admit that until you run out and watch it), the plot follows the beginning of the AIDS crisis in America in the early ’80s. It is truly unflinching in its portrayal of the panic and confusion surrounding gay men as they watched their friends dying around them. No one seemed to know why or even want to talk about it. You can feel the anger and the pain as an entire community felt betrayed by their own government, strangers in their own land. I won’t lie to you and tell you it is easy to watch – there was not one dry eye in my apartment that day – but I can tell you that it is important to watch.
You see, it is easy to say this movie is dramatic and therefore just an exaggeration of the reality. One young man even looked up at me and asked, “Did that really happen?” I was stunned at first, but why would I expect him to know? He was not even alive at that point in our history – we don’t talk about those days much anymore. With such amazing advancements in the treatment of HIV, it is not the death sentence that it once was. That phrase alone has been uttered a thousand times before. Now as we test drugs like PrEP, the future is changing before our eyes, yet there are still facts that need to be remembered.
HIV is still a life-changing disease, impacting the lives of 50,000 new people every year. That is the population of the city I grew up in! It is estimated that more than one million people in the U.S. are living with HIV today and 14 percent of people infected with HIV do not even realize that they have it! If all of this isn’t sobering enough and you have told yourself that no one dies anymore, in 2012 alone over 13,000 people with HIV died from related illnesses. So as I looked into that young gay man’s eyes, the numbers swirling in my head, I simply said “Yes.”
What transpired after the movie was hours of conversation, of questions, of passionate discussion. In one evening we had discovered our community, our tribe really. We had transcended age and race and background and were united by our history. That’s right, the LGBT community has a shared history and we cannot forget that. It is full of pain, beauty, fear, great strength, division, unity, and much love. In that evening I realized that we do not always remember to pass on the history in a way that our young LGBT people truly hear. If we do not know our own history, how will we ever avoid repeating it?
So why am I talking about a movie that came out a year ago? It’s not about the movie, but about the conversation. As we enter Pride Month and the parties and the parades begin all over the country, it’s important not to get lost in the festivities. Now, don’t get me wrong – the party is important to have, very important, actually, but Pride means nothing if it is just another weekend blow out. How much more important and impactful is a celebration when we truly understand why we have earned every last minute of it? You truly own your Pride when you know the muddled path, skinned knees and sleepless nights it took for us to get to the parade.
It is so very important to know where we came from, to celebrate where we are, and look with a hopeful gaze at our future. To know our history is to unite our tribe and break down our differences making us stronger than ever as we boldly fight across our land not only for marriage rights but for ALL rights!
I challenge every part of our LGBT community and our allies to take time to learn of our past this Pride season, to pass on the stories that we lived through and to listen to each other. As I looked into that young man’s eyes and we exchanged those words, I saw myself reflected and he recognized himself in me. To him I say, the hard truth is we were dying once…but now we live! But that is only one reason we have earned our parade!