By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly
I still remember Wednesday, August 7, 2013 vividly. I was in the middle of working on stories for the August print issue of PQ Monthly when I started receiving texts from friends. Sean Sasser, former Portlander and husband of Cascade AIDS Project’s former (and beloved) Executive Director, Michael Kaplan, passed away after a brief, furious battle with mesothelioma, a rare cancer linked to weakened immune systems in some people living with HIV.
For me and all the other ‘90s kids I know, Sean was one of the first gay faces we saw on our television screens; he appeared onscreen with then-boyfriend Pedro Zamora on MTV’s “The Real World: San Francisco.” Sean was gay, black, out, and HIV-positive. He was a game-changer; he was a life-changer.
Before our community heard the news about Sean’s passing, I spent some time talking to Michael Kaplan about our community’s response to HIV. “Our community has decided to live with this, not talk about it, but live with it,” he said. “Heads held high as we fight for same-sex marriage, employment nondiscrimination, and so much more—but please, just please don’t talk about sex, let alone AIDS. But the thing is we don’t have to live with HIV. I mean, some of us do—I do—but as a community, we can end this. We can all know our HIV status tomorrow, we can get into treatment, and we can be the ones who write the last chapter of this epidemic, the ones who finally stop the band from playing on and on.”
Here’s the thing: today, now, in 2015, some folks still ask me why HIV is my primary, personal cause—they’ll ask, isn’t HIV manageable? Wasn’t that cured already? (A real quote from someone in my workplace last weekend.) Isn’t the crisis over? The short answer: No. Sure, much progress has been made, welcome progress, but we still have so far to go when infection rates are rising and communities are still affected.
As a gentleman approaching his 40th birthday, my earliest memories of HIV and AIDS were scary ones. I remember watching Rock Hudson get sick and die on my TV screen, and I remember watching my grandmother cry about it. Growing up in a Pentecostal church, I heard nothing but horrific things about “the gays” and “the gay plague,” the disease sent from God to punish the sodomites. In 1993, while a junior in high school, I saw Philadelphia at our local movie theater with my best friend, Amy. As church-going Christians, we weren’t allowed to see films, but Amy and I were sneaky and saw dozens. I cried when I watched Philadelphia; at the time I mostly cried because, then, I believed gay men like me deserved to die from AIDS.
In August of 2013, right before Sean’s passing, I talked to my friend Karol about her ongoing support for CAP. “I remember the first time I learned about AIDS,” she remembered. “I was a young kid watching some disastrous TV movie about it, I’m sure meant to instill fear in those who didn’t know better. As an adult, I learned quickly there is nothing to fear. We should not abandon people because they have a disease they did not ask to get. We should not stigmatize people who need our support and love. We should be the best that humanity allows when it comes to HIV/AIDS care and support. I support AIDS Walk because there needs to be a constant, visual, loving support of people living with HIV.”
When we walk, we show we are not living in fear. We show our support for those living with HIV and AIDS and we give all our love.
When I walked in my first AIDS Walk, way back in the 1990s, I was a young, scared kid still coming to terms with his sexuality and identity. My friends and I were frequent patrons of The City Nightclub, a magical underage club that only old people remember. I worked as an assistant manager at the Gap and I walked in my first AIDS Walk with a dear friend, Lindsey, who worked at Nordstrom. We sure thought we were fancy, two glamorous retail girls who spent their evenings dancing away on The City’s lit-up dance floor. Then, my family definitely didn’t know about my activism because I didn’t dare discuss it. Now, they not only support me, but they support AIDS Walk. They give money every year.
“Scared, ashamed, angry, shocked. These were just some of the emotions I felt in March 2004 as I opened the letter from my doctor, a letter informing me I had tested positive for HIV,” my friend James told me. “I had been on a self-destructive path and it had caught up with me. Luckily, I heard about CAP and I booked my intake appointment that week. While there I learned about AIDS Walk, how it raises money for programs and services for those living with HIV and AIDS. It was also a time to come together with other people living with the disease. It was the first step out of the darkness—into what is now my passion, helping educate people about HIV/AIDS.”
His words have stayed with me since: It was my first step out of the darkness.
AIDS Walk is our community’s most powerful and enduring response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I walk to support, show love, and to, hopefully, join others in helping one more person take that first step.
Join us: http://aidswalkportland.org/.