By Kellie Schorr
My friend David died of GRID.
As a freshman in college when I met David, I was quiet, nerdy, and overwhelmed with the sudden liberation life after high school seemed to offer. He was funny, dramatic, smart and free—so very free—in the house of himself. He wasn’t “out” the way so many people are now, but he was thriving in a place where the word gay wasn’t a whisper, and everyone knew but nobody bothered to say it. He was at the beginning of an amazing life.
Then he was sick.
Then he was gone.
Just gone. Two months before his twenty-first birthday David died of a disease they called Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). Later, we would call it AIDS. Of course, it had other names too: Gay Cancer, Gay Plague, or just God’s Judgement.
Coronavirus is changing the way we live, work, learn and worship. We’ve come face to face with the solemn knowledge that death can happen quickly and love needs to be spoken frequently because we may not have another chance. As voices from different corners tell us to, “just think about the positive things” (bad advice) or “be willing to feel every ounce of this suffering” (equally bad advice), my mind keeps looking back to GRID and the lessons my community learned the hardest way of all.
Memories of Then:
I think about the early days of AIDS:
Every time someone says “Chinese Virus” or “Wuhan Virus” as if that name has any purpose other than to shed blame or cause hate. They changed GRID to AIDS when it became clear a virus doesn’t care who’s gay or straight, isn’t stopped by blame, and opportunistically thrives in places where marginalization and prejudice exist.
When I read about acts of violence toward Asian people and bats, who have insanely been blamed for the pain we endure. As the death toll from AIDS become too big to ignore, violence—both physical and emotional—toward the GLBT community increased dramatically. Religious groups targeted gay people for spiritual abuse on a regular basis.
When I see people gathering on beaches, Liberty University re-opening its campus, flocks of the “faithful” insisting on going to church, or people holding birthday parties because “this isn’t going to happen to them.” Even in communities where the death toll was a daily reminder of what was happening, people continued to engage is risk behaviors because, “AIDS is not going to happen to us.”
When I watch those clips of Donald Trump’s early dismissive responses, “We have a few people with it and they’re all getting better.” “We have 15 cases, soon it will be zero.” “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” By the time President Reagan said the word AIDS in a public forum, over 12,000 Americans had died from it.
When I watch the White House’s later responses including medical recommendations without diligent research to back them up. AZT was the first drug used to treat AIDS to slow the virus. It was rushed into use without adequate study. Today we know the amount of AZT early patients were given was a toxic overdose which hastened the pain and death of patients.
When I hear heartbreaking stories of people dying without loved ones around because hospitals can’t allow the virus to spread. Many gay people had been rejected or abandoned by their families of origin, and ended up dying in wards alone. In other cases, a family would claim next-of-kin legal rights, and take the patient back to their home state, locking out lovers and friends, for the final time.
The pain and isolation we feel not being able to be close to one another. Stigma and ignorance about how HIV/AIDS was transmitted led to calls for the infected to be permanently quarantined, and they were often denied human touch (even though that is not a way to spread HIV).
The time of GRID and our current pandemic have stark differences. Now, because of the HIV/AIDS journey, we have a better understanding of epidemiology, a more developed system of scientific intervention, and all but the most ignorant understand disease has nothing to do with whether you’re a “saint” or a “sinner”, but because a virus feeds on a human host.
As a Buddhist, my focus is supposed to understand the “then” but live in the “now.” What can we learn when the then becomes now?
Lessons for Now:
Care in Communities:
Then: As a community we worked together, we grieved together, we marched together, and reached out to people outside of our experience to create alliances of help and support. Long before the government created a national response or offered us any help, we were there for each other.
Now: We need that same commitment to each other. Don’t worry about just protecting yourself. Act in ways that protect others. Work with community efforts to identify people who need food, Wi-Fi access (not everyone has internet), help understanding how to file for unemployment (not everyone can read), or safe shelter, and donate what you can. Don’t strike out on your own. Work with others. Develop an alliance with leaders, neighbors, and existing agencies. This is an electronically enabled age. While we are socially distant, we can be effectively present through creative ways and generosity.
Names not Numbers:
Then: In 1982, 618 people died of AIDS. By 1987 the number was over 40,000. Numbers can scare us or inspire us, but the bigger they get the less real they seem. We see them and feel numb. In 1985 AIDS activist Cleve Jones asked people to paste the names of their loved ones who died from AIDS on the wall of the San Francisco Federal Building. It looked so much like a quilt it inspired the NAMES project which encouraged people to make a 3 x 6 quilt piece with decorations about the life of their loved ones. The AIDS Quilt became a symbol that never lets us forget that every number is someone’s somebody.
Now: Already stories and tributes about the lives of people who have died from COVID-19 are filling the internet. Stories of grandmothers, young fathers, health workers and bus drivers. When you pray, or ponder, think of them. When you hear someone talking about how the economy is more important than social distancing or remark “only 2% will die,” say their name. When you get tired, lonely, and lost in this time, bring up those stories and honor those people until you find your center once more. Speak up, speak often.
We are names, not numbers.
Then: One challenge in stopping the spread of HIV was the fact few people would seek testing or reveal their status because of the stigma involved. At a time when gay people had to keep such a vital part of themselves hidden so they didn’t get fired, be thrown out of housing, or lose their family, the disease flourished in pretense and secrecy.
Now: There’s no religious or social stigma to getting coronavirus, but we still find it hard sometimes to be honest about how we feel or what we are doing. Although social media is a triumph of connection in an isolated time—it’s also way too easy to bow to the pressure of “looking okay.”
Spiritual bypassing, the act of using faith, or “positive thinking” to avoid the truth of what you’re feeling or what is happening, will ultimately leave you feeling more isolated because you aren’t being honest with yourself or the people around you. Be real, first and foremost to yourself, about how you feel—if you’re scared, or sad, or okay. You can’t be present for others if you aren’t present for yourself in an authentic way.
Buddhist wisdom reminds us to take each day as it comes and awaken to the reality of what it holds. Some days are harder to do that than others. My generation endured an epidemic over 35 years ago, and besides stories of courage, love, and protest—my friend David and so many others who died too young gave us something of great value.
They left us a map.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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