Opening remarks, World AIDS Day candlelight vigil,
Harvard University, December 2, 2009
How many of you know a person living with HIV?
How many of you know five people living with HIV?
To date, AIDS has claimed more than 25 million lives – roughly two million of whom died in 2008 alone. Globally, 30-35 million people are living with HIV – half-a-million to a million of whom live in the United States, more than 10,000 of whom live in the Boston area.
HIV…. AIDS is not “somewhere else.” It is not simply something that happens to “other people.” Your raised hands bear witness to that, and your presence here this evening, 21 years since the first World AIDS Day, bears witness to the fact that this awful pandemic is so much more than numbers, numbers too large to truly make sense of. Since the first cases were identified in 1981, this disease has been spoken of as a disease of “others” – of “GRID,” “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” of the “4-Hs” – homosexuals, Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin users -- or now, of African children orphaned by HIV – of whom there are far, far, far too many.
But no matter how often we hear “general populations,” no matter how many nickels from our gingerbread lattés may go to African relief, HIV is not just “there,” it is “here.” Not just in Cambridge and Boston, not just on campus at Harvard, though it is here, quite literally – privilege might soften the blow of a deadly virus, but it does not stop it.
I ask you to think beyond “here’s” and “there’s,” beyond “us”’s and “them”’s, and to consider what it means to live a life of solidarity instead of a life of charity.
This question struck me as I was thinking over what to say tonight – thinking of my friend Amber, who interviewed for one of the first jobs in HIV support services back in the early 1980s, and of the mass panic that erupted when other subway passengers saw that she was reading – reading about AIDS – she must “have AIDS” and thus was a threat to them. I thought about the amazing ACT UP exhibit at the Carpenter Gallery – and if you haven’t seen it yet, go before it closes later this month, and look at the posters, listen to the ACT UP oral history stories, and teach yourself about this history, one that was here, is here, not just somewhere else. I thought of my own coming out, telling my father that I’m gay, and his first words being, “have you been tested for AIDS?” – and I could not find the voice to tell him that HIV had scared me so deeply that there was no need yet for such a test, barring a miracle on the order of the Immaculate Transmission.
But this is a year where the epidemic has hit closer to home than ever before, where two more friends tested positive since we stood here at last year’s World AIDS Day vigil – one of whom is an old friend and lover. As we talked, I remember him commenting upon being in good health, having the privilege to have been born in an era when drugs can stave off the ravages of HIV, to have the insurance to make those drugs available – as we fight for universal access to retrovirals, as we demand recognition that health is indeed a fundamental human right. But I also think of his discretion – his very understandable discretion – about his new HIV status, and how that lies in the blunt realities of bias, discrimination, shame, and fear that lie below the thinnest of veneers of liberal tolerance. Even now, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it is too easy, and all too common, to project those fears onto others – over there, someone else – so that we can maintain the fantasy of belonging to some mythical general population. And so I ask, again, for you to think about what it would look like to live without us and them, without here and there – living not for charity but for solidarity, as we are one.