The Age of AIDS, The Age of Family

Jim Burroway

June 5th, 2006

AIDS is twenty-five years old today.

It was on June 5, 1981 that the CDC first reported a puzzling new disease that we would come to know as AIDS. The intervening twenty-five years has been searing experience for the gay community. Discovering that one had AIDS was to receive an automatic death sentence, and over those twenty-five years an estimated half a million Americans died in the worst epidemic of modern times.

As deadly as AIDS was before the advent of Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART), the Age of AIDS was not the Age of Death. Instead, it is the age of struggle and determination, of coming together and caring for one another, and ultimately of triumph. Today, modern medicine means that for most people, AIDS is not the automatic death sentence it once was. With HAART, most of the estimated one million Americans who harbor the HIV virus live normal lives. But HAART is not a cure. For that, there is still more struggle and determination to go.

But more than anything else, the Age of AIDS is the Age of Family. “Family” has a very strong resonance in the gay community — in a way that few outside of the community know about. When someone wants to ask whether someone is gay or not, the question most often asked is “Is she family?”

That’s not a mere euphemism. “Family” is an honorific that the gay community has earned through twenty-five years of hard work and determination. As those with AIDS were cast out of their own homes and natural families, they turned to those who stepped in and filled the rightful role of family in their lives. The gay community has reinvented the family, not in imitation of what others think a family should look like, but in response to the life-and-death need for all of us to be “our brother’s keeper.”

Jonathan Rauch, writing in Sunday’s New York Times, offers this very experience to explain why marriage is so important to the gay community:

But there was also an epidemic of care giving. Lovers, friends and AIDS “buddies” were spooning food, emptying bedpans, holding wracked bodies through the night. They were assuming the burdens of marriage at its hardest. They were also showing that no relative, government program or charity is as dependable or consoling as a dedicated partner.

Yet gay partners were strangers to each other in the law’s eyes. They were ineligible for spousal health insurance that they desperately needed; they were often barred from hospital rooms, locked out of homes they had shared for years, even shut out of the country if they were foreign citizens. Their love went unmentioned at funerals; their bequests were challenged and ignored. Heterosexual couples solved all those problems with a $30 marriage license. Gay couples couldn’t solve them at any price.

The Age of AIDS has awakened a sense of family for all of us, and with that the determination to protect our family with all the power we can muster.

This twenty-fifth anniversary is a day for remembering those who have died. It is also a day for celebrating those who have survived. And it is a day to remember that the struggle isn’t over. AIDS entered our consciousness twenty-five years ago, and so did the stigma that went along with it. You can read about the role this stigma has played in this epidemic in our latest report, Opportunistic Infections.

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