December 1 is World AIDS Day, a day in which people around the world raise awareness of the AIDS pandemic, think about those living with HIV and AIDS, and remember those who have passed away from AIDS.
I only have been involved in World AIDS Day once, in 1995. I was attending Elmhurst College, and a few classmates and I decided to attend the service taking place in the main student centre. Elmhurst College had actually been able to secure a section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and, besides all of us wanting to see it, we felt we could support what we were being taught at Elmhurst College — to embrace diversity and support your fellow humans — by actually doing something, however passive it might be: a show of solidarity with our brothers and sisters who had HIV or AIDS and with people who lost loved ones to AIDS.
1995 had been a rough year for me. I’d finally broken up for the last time with my first ever boyfriend, I moved away from NIU because my family and I could no longer afford to pay room and board, and, with the ever-helpful and insightful advice of my best friend Anne, I discovered that NIU wasn’t offering me the opportunities and academic challenges overall that a smaller, private university could offer me. I had been extremely impressed with Elmhurst College, and there’d be less room and board costs if I lived at home (I’d only have to pay for petrol, which I had to pay for anyway), so I’d upended my university life and moved to a new school for my senior year.
What I lost at NIU, I made up for at Elmhurst. All the students I was in class with were friendly and supportive. The teaching and support staff members were always helpful, caring, and compassionate. They actually engaged me, and I could feel my critical thought processes blossoming like a flower under a gardener’s tender care.
Back to loss: breaking up with your first ever boyfriend/girlfriend can be traumatic. For me, it’d been love at first sight, but we had to be discrete about things. I wasn’t out; he wasn’t out. The difference was that I was willing to come out: my love for him was that strong. I made the commitment to him, but, looking back on things, that commitment didn’t go both ways. I honestly don’t think he knew what he wanted, and I honestly do think he loved me (“but not enough” as Arnold says in Torch Song Trilogy) so I left. To this day, I honestly don’t know if he ever loved me as deeply as I loved him.
Being suddenly single again makes you think, and my thoughts were that I wanted to be alone for a while and maybe being without the one you love was better than being with someone you didn’t love enough. So, at Elmhurst College, being the new kid on the block, I found myself cautious in befriending people. Part of me just wanted to be left alone, but most of me secretly enjoyed everyone being so nice to me, and, for the most part, not judging me for who I was.
Back to Friday, 1 December 1995: We arrived at the service. It was very sombre. I remember looking at the section of that quilt on the wall and wondering, “Who were these people? Did their loved ones still ache for them? Did dying hurt? Will anyone remember me or immortalise me with such a wonderful act as this?” It was a lot to take in. I was struggling to keep my emotions in check. One of my classmates started crying, and my hand instinctively rubbed her back and shoulder to calm her down. I think that impressed my other classmates because I also remember looking at one of my male classmates with tears gathering in my eyes, and I think he was so moved by me reaching out in compassion to someone I didn’t know extremely well (but nevertheless liked) that he put his hand on my arm and gave it a squeeze. That was just the type of people I went to Elmhurst College with.
In the 90s, HIV/AIDS was still something we were all coming to terms with. My Mom, a nurse, was working for an orthopaedic surgeon in the early- to mid-90s, and I remember one of the doctors or nurses lending her this book about HIV/AIDS. To be honest, to this day, I can’t believe my Mom fell for some of the weird stuff the author wrote. One part stated that by 2000, HIV would have mutated enough to be transmitted by sneezing or coughing or just through the air itself. The author also said we’d all have to live in higher altitudes because HIV’s transmission would be greatly reduced due to air being thinner. If you’re thinking, “huh?” by this time, so was I. I remember saying to Mom that I didn’t think a virus that could only survive outside the body for a very short window of time would suddenly mutate to survive outside the body for a much longer period of time within a few years. The whole premise seemed a bit far-fetched to me, but this was the paranoia we were living with back then.
My Mom also got upset when I was applying band-aids to friends who had cut themselves at various times. I might’ve done it four or five times for the same number of friends when we were at NIU or wherever. Mom (post-book, if I remember correctly) was worried that one of these friends potentially could have HIV or AIDS and I could become infected by putting a band-aid on an open wound. Again, I brushed her off; it was a band-aid I was applying, letting the gauze go over the wound. It wasn’t like I was rubbing my wound over that wound or whatever.
I’m hoping that we have evolved in our understanding of HIV/AIDS and people who are infected with HIV or AIDS. We live in an age where most people with HIV can manage their condition through a cocktail of medication, and so perhaps this has caused many of us to become more accepting of people with HIV or AIDS. We understand how it is transmitted and how the virus itself acts (for the most part), so HIV/AIDS is “less scary” than it used to be. Not having many (if any) friends or family with HIV or AIDS, I can’t tell you outright about how things have changed (if they have), but I personally feel they have.
Maybe some day there will be a cure: hopefully sooner than later. But for now, we should use World AIDS Day to think of and pray for the approximately 34 million people living with HIV or AIDS in the world today and the approximately 30 million people who have died from AIDS, and to educate ourselves and others about HIV/AIDS.