In many ways, I have Larry Kramer to thank for my life.
Weeks after I was diagnosed, in 1996, I made my first private call for help—to a group Kramer co-founded, Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). There I was, on the first night I was to take my medication, sitting at my kitchen table poking at a pile of pills. I’ve had trouble swallowing a single aspirin; sliding ten pills a day down my gullet seemed unimaginable. I tried chugging one—but no matter how I tilted my head, it choked me. Then I remembered the phone number my doctor had given me in case I needed encouragement. I called GMHC. I had no idea who Kramer was. And I wasn’t sure how a bunch of gay men in New York would react to a straight, white blond woman from the ‘burbs of New Jersey. As I dialed, I wondered if I should pretend to be a gay guy.
“How can we help you?” a cheerful man answered.
Shocked to be talking to another person about my HIV for the first time, I mumbled something about swallowing and pills. Within minutes, we were on to my fear, my shame, my sense of isolation. He stayed with me for a long time. “Imagine that your pills are soldiers,” he said. “You’re sending them in to fight the enemy. They are going to protect you from death.” Sure enough, the capsules cruised down my esophagus. To this day, I imagine my biggest pill as the general; the smaller ones, infantrymen. I have rarely missed a dose—and my adherence has protected me. I never got the young man’s name, and I didn’t give him mine. I’d like to thank him.
This spring marks the 25th anniversary of GMHC, and the 20th anniversary of another activist group Larry Kramer helped start: The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Before I got HIV, I would read the stories of ACT UP’s fierce members; I recall seeing their bodies strewn in protest at a Wall Street die-in. I wondered if I, too, could ever care enough to, say, carry SILENCE = DEATH placards up Capitol Hill. Now, after a year inside the AIDS world, I realize that too many of us are indeed silent. We’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by meds that “manage” HIV, a government that gives us just enough funding to tease us with the hope of health care, media that confront AIDS only if it’s overseas. Our activism too often aims gently at changing policies and laws that dictate our survival (Ryan White, anyone? Sure, go ahead, rename it). Especially during a real war, with real generals and infantrymen, I wonder: Why do we sit so politely asking for what we need and deserve?
The answer, of course, is simple: Fear. Many of us, myself included, fear what will happen if we make a ruckus. Will our ASOs’ funding be cut? Will we be quarantined, demonized even further? The most frightening thing I’ve ever done in my life was take this job and tell the world I have HIV. The only way I could overcome that fear was by realizing that the consequences of not taking it were far worse.
As we go to press, both GMHC and ACT UP are planning actions to reinvigorate their membership. The National Association of People With AIDS is looking for members. The Black AIDS Institute and NMAC are rallying their forces. Everywhere I look, I see angry and frustrated people moved to action.
My own life came full circle this month when I asked Kramer for the components of successful activism. “Continuity and fervor, and not being afraid of anyone,” he said. “Numbers help but are not essential. You have to do it every day, and people overlook that.” Larry Kramer helped teach me to swallow my medicine—and to survive. For our continued survival, we can no longer swallow the B.S.
Are you ready to soldier up?