My Photo
Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Remembering on World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day. Around the world, it's a day marked by ceremonies of remembrance for those who have died and speeches pledging to forge ahead toward finding new treatments and - eventually - a cure for AIDS.

Mostly, for me at least, World AIDS Day is marked by numbers and statistics.

Since its arrival was first noted in 1981, AIDS has claimed 25 million lives.

An estimated 40 million people worldwide now have HIV/AIDS.

Last year the U.N. estimates 3.1 million people died from AIDS and another 4.9 million became infected.

In America, the number of AIDS cases among men who have sex with men is on the rise again, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control.

Despite drops in infection rates among African Americans over the past several years, blacks remains eight times as likely to be diagnosed with AIDS.

Those are the kinds of numbers that get tossed around in World AIDS Day speeches. The news media dutifully reports the numbers. But tomorrow the news will be covering other stories about war or famine or poverty and there will be new numbers and statistics and body counts to report.

We've become immune to statistics. We are bombarded with numbers on a daily basis and there ability to move us for more than a moment has been dampened. The words of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin have never rang truer: "One man's death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic."

That's why I don't go out of my way to mark World AIDS Day anymore. The focus on the numbers remove the human face from HIV/AIDS. My own personal "AIDS Day" is tucked away inside a drawer. It's tied not to a calendar, but to my own need to remember.

Fifteen years or so ago my lover at the time and I lived in an all-gay apartment building managed by a gay couple who lived a floor above us. With six apartments in the building, there were always comings and goings and parties and "drama." The parties I remember most are the birthday parties thrown for Floyd, the apartment manager, whose birthday fell on the Fourth of July. We'd celebrate with cookouts and music and, after the sun went down, we'd move the party to the flat roof of the building for a glimpse of fireworks displays.

My gift for Floyd during the three years we lived there was to photograph the festivities and present him with copies of the photos. I'd have an extra copy of the photos made for me. Those photos, along with vacation photos that chronicled my trips, ended up in my nightstand drawer.

A decade ago I ran across those photos looking for something else. I sat on the edge of the bed and thumbed through them, remembering the parties and the people. There was Floyd being presented with outrageous birthday gifts. There was his lover, Steven, and their dog, a huge St. Bernard named, appropriately, Bernard. There was Jeff, dressed as a cheerleader in red, white and blue drag and his lover, Will. There was Tim, my lover's best friend. There was Tony, whom I have to admit I had a secret crush on. There was Tracy who planned on sex reassignment surgery one day and many others.

Then it hit me that many of these people were no longer around. I should have known that since I had sat through their memorial services. But those became times of numbness after a while ... services that melted one into another. Yet in the photos here they were again, smiling back at the camera very much alive at that moment.

Floyd's funeral was the first. I remember his sparsely attend memorial service where we all held hands and comforted Steven.

When Steven died his memorial service was held in his hometown. Few of us had the chance to attend, but I think that's the way his conservative family preferred it.

Tracy died in Florida, still waiting for his sex change operation.

I heard about Tony's death several months after it happened.

Jeff went home to his family in Colorado to die, but a local memorial service was held and I recall thinking how, with his usual drag queen bluntness, he had comforted me and then told me to "move on" after the break-up with my ex.

His lover, Will, moved away and we didn't learn about his death until much later.

Tim died, too. We always assumed he contracted HIV from the priest he dated for a while, (though the priest tried to keep his vocation a secret from us). Tim told us how the priest took him on a vacation to Denver and spent the entire time in a bathhouse there.

And there were others from those photos lost to the ravages of AIDS.

The last time I looked through the photos I realized that (apart from a few people I've lost track of over the years) my ex and I are the only ones I know of still alive.

I've lost friends before and after those pictures were taken, but for me the photos have become my own personal litany of the dead. I pull them out when I need to remember and grieve and to remind myself of the promise that Jeff extracted from me shortly before he went home to die: "Live like you're living for me."

For me World AIDS Day is not observed on December 1st. I keep my own personal World AIDS Day in a drawer by my bedside and I can observe it whenever I need to remember and grieve and keep a promise made years ago.