I was living in the Castro in San Francisco in 1978 where optimism and liberation were in the air. Harvey Milk was an openly gay City Supervisor, gays and lesbians marched in the street for equal rights, and gay liberation was on display from Folsom Street to Golden Gate Park.
There was a real sense of belonging to a community. Our world shook when Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated by former Supervisor Dan White that year. Then it shook again when San Francisco became ground zero of the AIDS epidemic.
By 1985, the city was full of heartbreak and dying. My friends and I lived among it, terrified that we would be next. I was diagnosed with HIV that year, forever making 1985 a pivotal year.
Many of my friends who hadn’t been tested for HIV ended up in the ER at San Francisco General in respiratory failure. I was blindsided as an entire group of my friends and neighbors seemed to disappear overnight. There were no medical treatments, other than some antibiotics that seemed to prolong death for many.
For whatever reason, maybe by the grace of God, or good Italian food, I don’t know, I never got sick from HIV and I held on to hope for a better day. But my life and times would never be the same as it was back in 1978, before the shooting death of Harvey, when we felt liberated, before AIDS wiped out my entire phonebook.
In 2000, I moved to Los Angeles and was on effective medication that suppressed my virus. I couldn’t go back and look at the photos from my past; it was too painful. The photo box still sits in my closet. I lost 100 friends, literally.
Life in LA was cautiously optimistic for me. I was living pretty well, despite my diagnosis, and my fear of death had gone away.
Life went on like that, but then suddenly, my new gang of friends started getting older. I started to see a lot of isolation and unhappiness take over. I did what I could to stay healthy, connected and relevant. I got more educated on HIV, I socialized as much as possible and entertained. I cooked good Italian food, like family used to make in New York City where I grew up. I still love to cook good Italian food for people.
I believe that we are now in a place where HIV is no longer chaos and an uncontrolled crisis. However, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still a topic that needs our attention and requires everyone’s attention. There are several organizations that do not have the funds for programs that benefit clients like me. For me it is essential to come together as one community and be able to show support and show that we are there for one another.
I’ve been participating in AIDS WALK Los Angeles for several years now. It’s one day of the year we can come together and walk in solidarity, to show pride of the wonderful community we are, and celebrate our brotherhood and sisterhood. Although there are several reasons why I do it, there is always one specific reason why I keep coming back—and that is because I am a man of my word and I am honoring a promise that someone else couldn’t fulfill.
I had a lover whose brother passed away from AIDS and when he passed, my lover promised his brother that he would march, that he would walk and celebrate his memory. But my lover was not able to fulfill that duty due to his physical limitations. Therefore, my lover could not participate in AIDS Walk.
I decided to take it upon myself and honor that promise. So for the many years that I’ve participated in AIDS Walk LA, I show up, I am physically there, and I do it—for me, for him, and for you.
I am adding another reason to my list of why I participate in AIDS Walk. This year I am celebrating the fact that many of us who are aging have survived. We are survivors, we are fighters, we are human beings who are in the position to celebrate our longevity and our many years of struggle.
In particular, this year I am walking with HIVE (HIV-Elders), a program through APLA Health (formerly AIDS Project Los Angeles) that has provided me with a new view of life. I will be walking alongside those men who have gone through similar difficulties but have overcome the adversity. We are building a new community and I want to thank HIVE for the constant support in helping me and others build a space where we belong.
Today, I am a 68-year-old long time survivor of the HIV/AIDS crisis. I am grateful for my life, my smaller group of friends and for social groups that cater to my aging HIV community. I am happy to be a HIVE member where I can socialize, have fun and learn some new life skills. I brag about my age and how my life is full, but I take nothing for granted.
I often get asked if I have survivors’ guilt. My answer is “Hell, no. I’m looking forward to being the oldest HIV survivor, living well through my 90s. I wish everybody a long and prosperous life…and a bowl of pasta with gravy!”
Sept. 18 is National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day. AIDS Walk Los Angeles will take place on Sunday, Oct. 20, aidswalkla.org.