On World AIDS Day, let's fight the disease, not those who have it
November 28, 2001
Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day.
As a 38-year-old gay man, I don't need a designated day to think about AIDS. If anything, I'd like a day when I don't think about it.
But many Americans have been lulled into thinking AIDS is "manageable" or, worse yet, over, so it's important to set aside a day to remind people worldwide about the disease and to encourage them to take action to help fight it.
AIDS is a disease of numbers. Big numbers. About 850,000 Americans have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to the World Health Organization. That's one person in 300 in this country. Each year, another 40,000 people in the United States are infected with HIV. As of June of this year, 438,795 Americans have died of AIDS, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Worldwide, the numbers are even more staggering: 36.1 million people live with HIV, and 21.8 million people are already dead because of it. Every day, 8,000 people die of AIDS, according to the World Health Organization.
I have my own set of AIDS numbers. Some I can rattle off the top of my head: In 1993, I lost 21 people to AIDS. In '94, another 12 died. In '95, 14 more. In total, about 150 people I know have died of AIDS. I say "about" because while I kept track of the number for many years, at some point I lost count. After the 50th memorial service, the 80th trip to the hospital and the 100th obituary, I just stopped counting.
And now, I admit with no small degree of shame, all the deaths sometimes blur together. It's just impossible to keep track of everyone.
Sometimes I hear a song on the radio and feel terribly sad, and I think, "Oh, I remember how Mark used to love this song ... Or, wait, was it Mark or was it Michael?" The fact that I can't remember makes me sadder.
Other times, one of my dead friend's faces will flash before my eyes with incredible clarity, as if in the middle of our conversation he stepped into the next room to grab his cup of coffee, and in a second will be back to pick up where we left off. And I have to tell myself, for the 100th time, "He's gone."
AIDS has worn me down with sorrow and grief. It has taken some of the people I loved most in the world, people I loved fiercely, passionately and entirely. At times it has made me terrified of the future, because the future meant only that more people I knew with HIV would be dead.
AIDS has aged me beyond my years. The average American loses someone close to them once every nine years, so by my calculations I'm about 1,388 years old. And sometimes it feels that way.
So I ask you, I implore you, to listen to me, an old, old man: Learn about
AIDS. Educate yourself, your friends, your children. Protect yourself. Donate time and money to a local AIDS charity. Fight against this disease, not against the people who have it.
Please don't let yourself become one of the big AIDS numbers. They're already too high as it is.
Patrick Letellier is the program coordinator at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center at the University of California-Santa Cruz. He can be reached at email@example.com.