Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Heal the World: World AIDS Day 2009

Last night Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church in Johnson City hosted the World AIDS Day Service. The Johnson City Press reported on the event.

Here is the text of the speech I delivered.

I am honored to be here this evening.
Honored and grateful. I am grateful to those who put this evening together including these organizations that are listed on the program:

HIV Network, Inc.

HOPE for Tennessee

ETSU Center of Excellence

NE TN Minority Resource Network

Washington County Health Council

NE TN Regional Health Office
Ryan White Program
League of AT&T

I am grateful to Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church for hosting this event.

I am grateful to LGBTieS, the Gay-Straight Alliance student group at ETSU.

I am grateful to the Tennessee Equality Project of the Tri-Cities.

I am grateful to PFLAG Tri-Cities (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People).
I am honored to be a member of PFLAG’s board. That is why I am sharing a few words with you tonight.

I am grateful to the POZ support group at ETSU (a support group for those living with HIV and those affected by HIV).

I am grateful for every organization that I did not mention that I should have mentioned.

I am grateful to each person here tonight who has organized, spoken out, cajoled, persuaded, wept, emptied their pockets, shouted, advocated, despaired, hoped, cared, laughed in the face of when the tears dried out, written letters, complained, cried, stomped, stamped, medicated, loved, prayed, suffered, and stood proud.

It takes all of us. We have come a long way in 30 years.

  • From a time when we had no idea what we were dealing with, to a time in which we know a little more but not enough for a cure.
  • From a time when churches closed their doors in fear and judged, denied, ignored, and dismissed to a time when churches are beginning to open their doors and care as their founder cared.
  • From a time when our government balked, procrastinated and fiddled while human beings died, to a time when our government is beginning to see that it is in its interest to finally build a national HIV/AIDS strategy and a global health initiative.
There is some good news. According to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Worldwide AIDS infection rates are curving down. People carrying the virus are living longer. Life-prolonging drugs, which also reduce transmission rates, and prevention advice, are making a difference. The counterattack in a long siege is showing results.

Borne out in a U.N. report in advance of today's World AIDS Day, these trends continue a positive trend in fighting a scourge that has killed 25 million and left 33 million infected since the immunity-sapping condition was identified nearly 30 years ago.

But with modest success go challenges. As AIDS treatment and care matures, critics want to shift money and medicine toward other problem diseases, such as malaria, pneumonia and childhood diarrhea, that are lethal and tameable. In public health politics, the AIDS fight is too successful for its own good, making the effort a target in the competition for funding.

It would be a mistake to buy this argument in total and cut AIDS spending to pay for a new fight in other areas. Weakening global efforts would lead to a rise in AIDS infection rates, reversing the progress made so far. There's no question that new health fights lie ahead, but hobbling a successful crusade isn't good policy….

....Other diseases badly need attention. But the fight against AIDS should not be sacrificed. The battle is still far from over.
It is more important than ever that we keep Washington’s feet to the fire and insist that Washington keeps the promise. We have a long way to go. President Barack Obama proclaimed December 1st, 2009 World AIDS Day and said:
Though we have been witness to incredible progress, our struggle against HIV/AIDS is far from over. With an infection occurring every nine-and-a-half minutes in America, there are more than one million individuals estimated to be living with the disease in our country. Of those currently infected, one in five does not know they have the condition, and the majority of new infections are spread by people who are unaware of their own status. HIV/AIDS does not discriminate as it infiltrates neighborhoods and communities. Americans of any gender, age, ethnicity, income, or sexual orientation can and are contracting the disease.
That is true. HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. A few years ago I participated in a World AIDS Day Service in Montana where I lived at the time. The planners were careful and accurate to show that HIV doesn’t discriminate. I think in the backs of our minds if we could show that HIV/AIDS is not just a gay disease, then non-gays might be more careful and perhaps more willing to take it seriously.
But in the effort to do that we overstated the case leaving a gay friend of mine to say, “What, gay men aren’t susceptible anymore?!”

At an HIV/AIDS rally six weeks ago in front of the White House, one the speakers, Oriol R. Gutierrez Jr., a gay Latino with HIV who is also the Deputy Editor of POZ Magazine said:
More than half of new HIV infections in the United States unfortunately are among men who have sex with men -- almost one in two of them are African American, almost one in five are Latino and more than one in five are white….Fighting homophobia and racism helps to fight stigma and discrimination related to HIV/AIDS.
We have a lot of work to do. Right here in Johnson City. He also said:
Approximately half of all HIV-positive Americans have insufficient healthcare coverage -- or none at all.
That one is worth repeating:
Approximately half of all HIV-positive Americans have insufficient healthcare coverage -- or none at all.
The debate we are now having over healthcare is critical to those living with HIV. It is a matter of life and death. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say tonight. So yesterday on my blog and on my Facebook page, I announced that I was going to speak tonight. I wrote:
If you were speaking what would you say? Or what do you hope will be said?
I received a couple of replies that I will share with you word for word. I owe it to them to keep my promise and share their passion with you. The first commented on my Facebook page. His brother died of AIDS. He said:
You should tell your audience that they need to demand that Congress end the wars of terror and use that money to end HIV/AIDS and to give universal health care for all Americans.
Short and to the point. The second comment was from a gay man. He wrote:
If you've never read "Last Watch of the Night" by Paul Monette, you should. In one of the essays, titled "3275" (the number refers to his grave plot in the "Revelation Hill" section of Forest Lawn Cemetery), Monette writes,

"We queers on Revelation Hill, tucking our skirts about us so as not to touch our Mormon neighbors, died of the greed of power, because we were expendable. If you mean to visit any of us, it had better be to make you strong to fight that power. Take your languor and easy tears somewhere else. Above all, don’t pretty us up. Tell yourself: None of this ever had to happen. And then go make it stop, with whatever breath you have left.

Grief is a sword, or it is nothing."
Last night I went to Barnes and Noble and to Books a Million to find this book by Paul Monette, Last Watch of the Night. Neither store had it. Neither store had any book by Monette. I asked them if they had any books on HIV/AIDS. The pickings were sparse. Books A Million had one dated book. Barnes and Noble had one as well.

Barnes and Noble book was an interesting one. It is a book about Johnson City. I had been told about it but never read it. I purchased it yesterday. It is My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese.

The author was a doctor in Johnson City in the 1980s as the AIDS epidemic began.
I had the chance to read only about 50 pages and I skipped around a bit. So far I am finding it to be a fascinating story of both this period of time and of life near our mountain.

In one section of the book he writes about other parts of the country during 1987 or so in which people are demonstrating, acting up and demanding action on behalf of treatment and a cure. But no one is acting up in Johnson City. He writes:
But in our town we simply watched the television spectacle of mass arrests, heard the fiery speeches, saw the five-second newsflash of a bridge being blocked by activists.

My patients, by contrast, were in hiding. They were not inclined to a public demonstration of any sort, scared lest the tragedy of their HIV infection be compounded by their neighbors’ knowledge of it. My patients relied on me to tell them if a cure was coming, relied on me to tell them that they should be frustrated and angry with the fickleness of Reagan’s commitment to AIDS, relied on me to draw the parallel between Nero and Reagan, between the burning of Rome and the continued lack of a firm governmental response to AIDS.

I was their surrogate activist, their link to the larger consciousness of AIDS. They visited regularly they were punctual like churchgoers, they accepted my prescriptions for “Stress-Tabs-with-Zinc,” they swallowed the antidepressants or the appetite stimulants I prescribed, and they went on. Their battle lay largely on the home front: Keeping up the appearance of health and hiding the secret of AIDS. P. 276
Secrets kill. We need to end the stigma with whatever breath we have. Right here in Johnson City. In our grief, if there is anger, it is a holy rage. None less than St. Augustine of Hippo said:
“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”
I am grateful today that you are here. I am grateful that things are changing in the Tri-Cities. I am grateful that people are realizing that keeping up appearances and staying in closets and hiding secrets is not healthy.

HIV, homophobia, and racism are real enemies.

We fight them by telling the truth.
We grieve today. We grieve for those who have died.

But let our grief become a sword.
As Paul Monette said:
“Go without hate, but not without rage. Heal the world."


  1. Well done. I do like that last bit - go without hate, but not without rage. Goes along with that other great saying that if you aren't outraged, then you haven't been paying attention.

  2. Too bad the New York legislature chose that particular day to vote against GLBT marriage rights.

    Too bad Obama hasn't provided the level of leadership for HIV/AIDS, Health Care, GLBT (and other human) rights as he put out for War Tuesday night.

    He lost me. It took about a year of watching him back off and compromise and fail to lead on everything but War.

    As Voltaire once said, we each need to tend our own garden. In the face of no help from the principalities and powers (no surprise there, but I keep hoping) John's speech is a welcome voice in our neglected political, social, economic garden.