Roger Ian Rosen
Growing Up in the Shadow of AIDS
from the Reflections on a Queer Childhood essay series
I, like so many gay men of my generation, have never had sex without the specter of death hovering just above my head. And I, like so many gay men of my generation, discovered who I am, and how this country feels about who I am, while growing up in the shadow of AIDS.
I was born in 1972, in a suburb of Washington, D.C. On July 4, 1981, on the eve of my 9th birthday, The Washington Post mentioned AIDS for the first time, although it was not yet referred to as AIDS. At that point, it was still just a mysterious disease. The Washington Post wouldn’t refer to it as AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, until December 10, 1982. I was 10.
Obviously, I didn’t read those articles as I was still more interested in choreographing big, splashy showstoppers to the soundtrack of Xanadu than I was in issues of public health and safety. I was too young to experience firsthand the tidal wave that crashed down upon an entire generation of gay men, leaving them either dead or shell shocked. Too young to understand what was going on, or why. Actually, that’s not completely accurate. I was at that strange age between understanding and not understanding, between knowing and not knowing. I wasn’t capable of fully grasping what was going on and how it affected me, but I was capable of feeling what was going on and how it affected me. The messages were pretty gosh darned clear.
AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals. —Jerry Falwell
Lovely. Clearly I’m not wanted here.
As the years wore on, I became increasingly conscious of the fact that the debate that raged in this country wasn’t about ways to stop the disease or its most efficacious treatments—the debate generally revolved around whether we, as a country, should just let the faggots die since they’re the ones getting it and they brought it upon themselves.
The government should spend less money on people with AIDS because they got sick as a result of deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct. —Senator Jesse Helms
Then came Ryan White, who passed away from AIDS complications on April 8, 1990. The reporting was unambiguous—Ryan White’s case was newsworthy because he did not belong to the group that was supposed to get it; he was innocent, having contracted the disease through a blood transfusion and through no fault of his own. Because of that innocence, the prejudices he faced were viewed by the public as unwarranted. The headline for his obituary in The New York Times read, “Ryan White Dies of AIDS at 18; His Struggle Helped Pierce Myths.”
From that obituary:
“After seeing a person like Ryan White—such a fine and loving and gentle person—it was hard for people to justify discrimination against people who suffer from this terrible disease,” said Thomas Brandt, the spokesman for the National Commission on AIDS.
Keith Haring died the same year from the disease, unable to “pierce myths.” Apparently, none of the 120,453 U.S. lives that had been lost to the disease up to that point were fine or loving or gentle.
(And before anyone writes me a note about how Ryan White’s death was tragic, my point isn’t that his death wasn’t tragic, it’s that all the deaths were and are tragic.)
When Ryan White died, I was mere months away from the beginning of my own sexual life and the implication, vicious as it was, was not lost on me: if someone could be innocent, it only stood to reason that others could be guilty.
I was not like Ryan White. I was guilty.
The poor homosexuals—they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.” —Pat Buchanan
I should probably insert a Ronald Reagan quote here, but St. Ronnie was, literally, deadly silent on the issue until May 31, 1987, at which time over 50,000 Americans had contracted the disease and nearly 41,000 had died from it. Let that sink in for a second: our president didn’t publicly mention a health crisis until it had claimed nearly 41,000 American lives.
What I experienced in those early years of the epidemic and through my young adulthood was its own special kind of horror—the horror of figuring out who I was against the backdrop of a country that seemed perfectly happy to let me die an excruciating death; whose stunning reaction to a disease ranged from a willful lack of understanding and compassion to outright glee at the annihilation of a generation of gay men. Men who deserved it. Men whose families wouldn’t visit them at the hospital. Men whose bodies were being thrown away in garbage bags.
But for the accident of the timing of my birth, these men were me. Their pain, mine. Their alienation, mine. Their suffering, mine. The deadly moat of apathy that surrounded them, mine. Their casually discarded lives, mine. Their deaths, mine.
Oddly though, I am thankful for the lessons I learned as the lava was hardening on my identity: Never forget who you are. Never forget where you come from.
Roger Ian Rosen writes a bimonthly series called Reflections on a Queer Childhood on VillageQ. He has also written for Amtrak’s Ride with Pride series as well as Baristanet, a blog that covers local news in Essex County, New Jersey. As a performer, Roger has worked throughout the US and Europe as well as on Broadway. Roger serves on the Human Rights Campaign’s Greater New York Steering Committee as the Volunteer Coordinator for New Jersey. Roger is a son, brother, uncle, step-father, husband, and soon to be grandfather. It is his most fervent wish that he henceforth be referred to as a GILF. To that end, Roger is indulging his body dysmorphia by dieting and working out excessively in an attempt to get back to his birth weight. Roger is an angry gay. You can find more of his musings, writings, and rants on his Facebook page and on his blog, Rogeronimo.com. Follow him on twitter @rogeronimo_com.
This essay originally appeared on VillageQ.