31 March, 2020 -A few weeks ago I ruffled some feathers. Shocking, I know. I had just been kicked off a mounting in Colorado and made my way through a crowded airport to my home and during that trip, a lot of people seemed afraid. Back then I said everyone now has AIDS. I think we now have something worse – we have isolation and fear.
This new normal is hauntingly familiar. When I started coming out in 1993 and 1994 I joined a community that held the scars from wondering not IF we would get HIV, but WHEN. Our collective psyche was wired for expecting infection. Messaging from the media indicated that we were in the crosshairs. Sound familiar? We wondered collectively out loud: would our next encounter be the point at which were became infected? We had to measure our desire to have an “encounter” against the knowledge that the next “encounter” meant that I was willing to take a risk to inherit all the people the other person had “encountered” with. It was daunting. Safe became “safer” and everyone had to negotiate what level of risk they wanted to take. A word of caution – we know what it takes to stay safe from viruses. The queer community nearly tore itself apart figuring this out and debating what level of risk, exposure or intimate encounters was appropriate. Worse still, those that did become infected were often shame-blamed, ostracized and made to feel unwelcome in any encounter – regardless of the known steps that could be taken to remain safe. We had our scarlet letter.
Do we shake hands any more? When do we hug again? Can we gather for special events and join for family reunions? I’m looking beyond this wave, this outbreak. What comes next? Lucky for those of us in the HIV aware community, transmission and spread was through a finite, intimate and specific set of conditions. In viral terms, this one was hard to catch. We had to go WAY beyond a sneeze to share HIV. We learned a hell of a lot in the process. The hook-up app-driven single community still knows these lessons and these precautions. Hand sanitizer is the new condom. In our global community of hand greeting, concert going, transit taking, group gathering, we are going to have to figure out what risk is appropriate.
What comes next? I have no idea, but some suggestions from what I learned in the 90’s.
- Don’t panic. Wash your hands and do what is comfortable for you, on your terms.
- Get the facts and after social distancing, be socially responsible. This means stay home if you feel off and disclose your health status if you don’t feel great, empowering others to have the ability to make informed decisions.
- Know that there are folks in the community at higher risk, so do what you can to protect them by owning your own responsibility.
- Let facts prevail.
- That last one is good enough to stand on its own, but let’s let facts about viruses prevail, facts about cleaning be our guide and truth about infection be spread by the experts.
- Thank your local health care provider.
- Take a collective deep breath and know that a community survives better than an individual alone.
- It is OK to be happy and important to be joyful. Seek opportunities to do so and let your guard down when you are ready.
- Social accountability- this one is tough. During the AIDS holocaust, we had to not only be socially accountable, we also had to hold our friends accountable to potentially destructive behaviors. Doing this with love always worked better than shame, blame or punishment.
Am I still talking about the gay community in the late 80’s and 90’s? Sure, maybe? The HIV – AIDS community grew beyond these challenges and because of those lessons learned we help lead a revolution on patient advocacy, self care and mental health wellness among our peers. I have no idea what come next after phase 1 of this Covid-Coronavirus craziness, but I know for sure if we apply lessons learned we will all be a lot better off.
Lastly, cover your cough, listen to your body if you don’t feel well, disclose your known status and wash your hands.