Coming of Age in the Shadow of HIV

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Michael Harris’s beautiful personal essay “Life after Death,” published in The Walrus (Sept 2011), crystallizes the history of HIV through the lens of one who has grown up with the virus as an ever-present force:

I’m the same age as the epidemic. By my first birthday, eight young gay guys in New York had developed purple tumours on their skin, which turned out to be a rare cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. Those boys had AIDS, though there wasn’t a name for it yet.

That year, 1981, an unknowable number of men slept (shamefully or shamelessly) with each other and unwittingly consigned themselves to early deaths…. That year, my future best friends and I, seemingly far removed from AIDS and from each other, learned to crawl in the undestroyed homes of our parents.

Harris moves deftly through the years and the changing stories of HIV: the shift from death sentence to chronic condition as treatments improved; the modern-day shock he experienced when he realized “that people still suffered, even died, from this virus”; and how fiercely young gay men have tried to put the plague of AIDS behind them. These shifting realities are captured when Harris comes out to his mother at the age of 20:

She mostly said the right things. But when I came home later that day, she was slumped on the stairs beside a forgotten load of laundry. “I just worry,” she kept saying. “I worry for your health.” We both knew what she was talking about.

While she was wise to worry, I thought she was terribly misinformed. The year was 2000, infection rates had been dropping steadily. I expected a vaccine to be discovered any day. But infections mysteriously began to rise after that; they have never again been as low as they were the year I came out. And I’m still waiting on that vaccine.

The right thing to do when confronted with a crying mother is to hold her, reassure her. Instead, I was furious. “You’re stuck in the 1980s,” I told her. “It’s actually really offensive.” I was determined to create something new with my life, something unfettered by the ugly, death-fuelled narrative that seemed to consume gay culture. I wanted an ordinary life with an ordinary man and an ordinary golden retriever. And my mother’s worry precluded all that, consigning me to a dated pessimism that I hoped to outrun.

Visit The Walrus to read the rest of Harris’s insightful essay. And learn more about the facts and stats of AIDS and how you can get involved on World AIDS Day.

Source: The Walrus

Image by Trygve.u, licensed under Creative Commons.

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