Electrifying Time


Graig Cote

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Homosexuality was beginning to be accepted by main stream America, spoken in conversations, and a tolerant attitude was prevailing. All the while a menacing disease started to show itself. In the discos, the purple lesions became the new outfits of our dancing partners, not one of choice, but because of the effects of a disease that was ravishing our community. Our friends, who were healthy one week, were lying in the hospital beds dying, wasting away while we, the healthy, remained silent. Lies and half-truths became the norm, and fear became our constant companion. The, “what ifs,” became the “what was.” Before I even knew what really was happening, I too became one of the many infected by this disease.

June 15, 1986, I stopped at the Doctors office. He told me that at 25, I should not have shingles, a neurological disorder that affects the elderly, not of a 25 year old athletic male. He said, “You probably have HIV. We will give you the test.”

Fueled by uncertainty, misunderstanding, fear, stigma and moral judgments, we allowed the discrimination to create a blanket of oppression. I, like many others, hid the disease like a secret cloak that would and in some instances destroy lives. We watched as our friends dwindled away allowing them the lies that they chose to tell, never challenging or looking for the truth, fearful that we would be next. On two different occasions I stood quiet as another one of my friends discussed their disease, while knowing I too was infected.

            So began the journey of loss and sadness, fueled by uncertainty and dispair. Not facing the truth, I hid my head in the sand, and ran out of state, only to come back to a community ravished by a disease, and wondering what had happened to everyone and where would I fit in. I feared for my community which seemed a skeleton of what I remembered before I left. I stood empty and alone with my community and its loss.

I no longer had any one to say “remember when…” All my friends who had shared in the process of coming out, and growing up, were gone. I lay awake alone because all the people that I wanted around my heart were gone. They are forever sketched in my mind on a beautiful canvas of tranquility, and the place they have in my heart is just a safe memory like a trophy on a shelf. While others are memorialized on a panel that sits in a storage unit, too big to be shared in its entirety with the world again; they, like my “remember when’s,” are collecting dust and are a symbol of what and whom I have endure. But they as people, as a tangible realness are gone.

A new Community developed out of need, like a club, with the only requirement being HIV positive. The Ohio State University had the AIDS Clinical Trial Group; a research facility that also provided blood work which would remain off ones medical record, like a secret journal of an individual’s progression toward death. Grass root organizations started to form, The Columbus AIDS Taskforce, The Ohio AIDS Coalition and others. The infighting within the organizations, and the need for services created a passionate and sometimes volatile situation. The community was divided and conflicts were played out in meetings and personal agendas.

Unlike today, with medications and treatments that attack the virus and its replication cycle, during the early days of the epidemic, medications and treatment were more concerned with keeping an individual healthy. I have evolved like the virus, the journey similar, no longer waiting for answers, we seek out new ideas, creating a stronger foundation and platform. I was on highly active anti-retro-viral therapy. Taking AZT seven a day, getting nauseous just in time to feel better and take another pill, sneaking my medications under the table. I participated in my first healing weekend, and found the support, a new community of individuals that wanted to live with the disease, not die from it. I became a public speaker receiving Speaker of the Year. I continue to guest lecture for Schools and Universities creating a bigger community through education. I speak openly and honestly, no longer hiding behind the cloak of stigma, fear, and discrimination.

            When I am asked about my community, like the treatment of HIV, it is longer only dealing with those who are HIV positive. My community is everyone either infected with or affected by HIV and AIDS. Today we have stepped outside the box, and are treating individuals who are HIV negative, with PrEP to ensure that they do not become infected. It is through open dialogue without embarrassment or contempt that we can create a level playing field.

Under the blanket of oppression, stigma, and discrimination no longer will we lay. We have created a new community of unity and strength, no longer defined by a disease that held a moral judgment. Today we are a community united in the attempt to eradicate this disease. With the tides turning and equality spoken on the tongues that once only whispered of hope, we have come together and have a place at the table. We as a community have asked and fought for a place of equality and acceptance. We are vocal in our pursuit fueled by commitment and passion. Covered with the memories, blood, and sadness of those who came before us, who cannot speak, we are the voice of those who have died.

We as the HIV community must continue to remain vigilant in the fight for the end of HIV infection. With no apologies, fear or judgment we are a part of the human spirit. We as HIV positive individuals should stand firm and create a world without HIV and AIDS. We are a new community standing at the front of the parade of life, laughing, caring and sharing with no apologies, we are HIV positive.