On What Harvey Milk, HIV, Stigma, and Openness Have in Common


By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly

A day after Harvey Milk Day, my friend Brenden Shucart, who’s editor-at-large at Positive Frontiers, wrote one of the most beautiful, honest, and important pieces I’ve ever come across. It’s an essay about HIV, stigma, openness, and the inspiration Harvey Milk continues to provide our community. I read it yesterday, thought about it all day, and decided this morning I wanted every one of our readers to experience it, too. Because it really is an experience. Brenden graciously agreed to share his story here. And without further ado:

Yesterday was Harvey Milk Day here in California, a “day of special significance” enacted by our legislators in 2009—and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of all people—to honor the legacy of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. All week long, up and down the state, various groups and municipalities have been honoring the great gay civil rights icon in their own ways. The City of West Hollywood held a big community photo project, Long Beach dedicated a park in Milk’s memory, and in San Francisco, city officials organized a reading of selected passages from Milk’s famous “You’ve Got to Give Them Hope” speech among others.

This year I celebrated Harvey Milk Day by thumbing through my well-worn copy of The Mayor of Castro Street, reading the great man’s words and the words others wrote about him, and wondering where we would be right now if history had turned out a little bit differently.

It is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. What if Dan White hadn’t assassinated Harvey Milk? He was a strong leader with a clear vision and a passionate, eloquent voice. How would things have been different? When the mysterious plague that came to be known as AIDS was filling the halls of hospitals with gay men hopelessly waiting to die, would he have made a difference? Would his eloquence have provided succor to those who were dying, scared and alone? Would his strong clear voice have been able to call upon the Regan administration to do something? To stop ignoring the decimation of our people? To demandaction?

If there was no assassination of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone, would there have ever been an AIDS crisis? Would HIV be ravaging the African-American community as it is today? Would 50,000 new infections be occurring every year? Would I have spent the last eight years living with this virus inside of me? Could his leadership have prevented all of that suffering?

Or would he have been cut low, just like the rest of our leaders and dreamers? Did a bullet save him from a lingering death a handful of years later?

I know there is no point to thinking thoughts like these. Neil Gaiman once wrote, “Sometimes you dream about the paths of destiny and speculate to no purpose. Dream about the paths you took, and the paths you didn’t take…” And these dreams are always a kind of torture, because in our mind, the paths untaken are always brighter and better than the one we find ourselves on. But nevertheless, these are the thoughts I was thinking yesterday when I came across this quote from Milk’s “That’s What America Is” speech:

Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents! I know that it is hard and will hurt them, but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives, come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop, come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene.

It’s a passage that I must have read countless times in the last decade, but when I read it again yesterday, I burst into tears.

You see, when I was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2005, I didn’t really know anyone who was living with the virus. I didn’t have any role models. I put on a brave face and told my friends things like, “This isn’t 1983 anymore,” and “science has come so far since then,” to get the pitying/heartbroken looks off of their faces more than anything, but inside it was different.

Inside I believed that I was an awful person who somehow deserved this burden. Inside I believed that I was irrevocably tainted, unworthy of love and that one day I would die broken and alone. In my despair and desperation I turned to drugs—meth among other things—and the embrace of strangers who did not have my best interest at heart because I felt so alone, and I thought that was the life I deserved. And I believed that because there was no one in my life to show me differently.

Ultimately I pulled out of it. I realized that I really didn’t want to die broken and alone, and I stopped putting myself into messed up situations. People in my life—friends and family—realized I was in crisis despite my best efforts to hide my pain and showed me that I was worthy of love. But I can’t help feeling that it didn’t have to go the way it did, that if I had people in my life who were successful, healthy and just happened to be living openly with HIV, I might have saved myself six months of substance abuse and self-loathing. That is why I made up my mind a long time ago to always be open and honest about my HIV status. And that is why I am urging you to be honest about yours.

I am not talking to the 18-year-old kid who just found out he is living with HIV and is trying his best every day just not to fall apart. I’m not talking to anyone who might fear for their physical safety if their HIV status should ever become public knowledge.

I’m talking to the studio VPs and the small business owners who think “My HIV status is nobody’s business but mine.” I’m talking to the brilliant artists and performers who have told me, “I don’t want to be known as ‘the _____ with HIV.’” I’m talking to the drag queens and DJs and party promoters that all the little homos, fresh on the scene, look to and think “I want to be like her.” I’m talking to my friends and the members our community.

Come out.

You can make a difference. You can help these kids. You can give them hope.

The original post is here. Photo credit: San Francisco Public Library via photopin cc.