I was asked by Nova Starr to write about the history of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus for my Lambda Lore column. I have never had a request before, and while I am more than happy to oblige, I fear that HIV in Utah is not history — though we all wish it was. Nor is it some old gay guys’ disease, either, as I have heard some say. The fact is, the majority of HIV infections and AIDS cases in Utah are reported among white, non-Hispanic males between 20-39 years old. Last year, even a 17-year-old in Salt Lake County tested positive. Health officials stated that he was more than likely infected at age 16.
State Health officials are alarmed that Utah’s HIV infection rates have climbed steadily over the past three years. You should be, too. The reality of the situation is that the number of HIV infection reports surpassed the number of AIDS case reports for the first time in Utah in 2004, and is still climbing.
Some 3,000 people in Salt Lake County alone are living with HIV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that “several hundred more” are infected but unaware. However, this may well be an underestimation; in 1995, the Utah Department of Health estimated that two-thirds of people infected with HIV didn’t even know they were infected. If that number holds true today, then it is more than likely that around 9,000 people in Salt Lake County are infected with HIV.
The Department of Health HIV Education and Training coordinator, Heather Bush, reported that Utah’s 2009 HIV infection rate of 112 new cases was the highest on record. That’s up from 25 to 35 cases a decade ago. In June 2010, Lynn Beltran, program manager for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases at the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, told a reporter: “The epidemic has in recent years shown resurgence, especially among young men.” So much for statistics.
Queers of my generation find these facts disturbing, frightening and distressing. The fact that HIV can develop into Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome has been known for 25 years. Yet, the 21st Century has lulled many in our community into thinking that AIDS is now no more chronic then, say, diabetes. This thinking has led a lot of healthy young people into letting their guard down. The 25 years of lamenting over safe sex has also taken its toll; ultimately, a lot of people have just become numb to its message.
We all know sex was never meant to be safe. It was meant to be passionate, engaging and full of pleasure for all our senses. But then came a fatal disease that turned our body fluids toxic.
Body fluids. Think about it. Our body fluids are what define us as a life force on this watery planet. We were conceived in fluids, we floated in the womb’s embryonic waters, when born we drank of our mother’s fluids, and we struggle in this world through blood, sweat and tears. We want to connect with other human beings by secreting our fluids during moments of rapture. We have evolved during the last million years by sharing our bodily fluids. But when AIDS showed up, we literally began to kill the ones we loved. We saw them become emaciated, get cancer, vomit, soil themselves and then die.
On top of this, we were blamed for the disease. We were hated for this disease and no matter how politically incorrect it may sound AIDS is still a gay man’s disease. During 2001-2008 the Utah Health Department recorded that “men who have sex with men (MSM), remained the highest risk behavior for HIV infections and AIDS cases (63%) reported in Utah.” In Utah, eighty three percent of HIV infections, and eighty six percent of AIDS cases occur in males.
AIDS is also our disease because it has killed more of our lovers, families and friends, all mostly in the prime of their lives, than it has killed any other people. Listing all the people I know who have died of AIDS, from researching obituaries and personal knowledge, would take far more than the 800 words I am allotted for this column. And no amount of words can assuage our collective grief. I’ve said that I feel an obligation to preserve our history partly because I survived when so many did not. I feel like I have to tell a story that they cannot.
And what a story! We fought back. It was the queer community that organized the Utah AIDS Project and Salt Lake AIDS Foundation. Not the straight community. It was the queer community that informed Utahns about what caused AIDS. Not our health department. And doing so has taken its toll. We have what might be called battle fatigue.
On June 3, 1981, The New York Times ran a small article entitled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” It concerned a disease that affected normally healthy gay men. Two days later, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta announced that five previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles had been diagnosed with pneumocystic carinii pneumonia, a rare disease that was previously unknown in people with healthy immune systems. The disease was first clinically called “Gay Related Immune Deficiency,” but referred to in the media as “Gay Cancer.” Until this time, no one thought of cancer as being contagious.
Utah did not begin to officially track deaths from this new disease until 1983 when HIV was discovered as the cause of AIDS. Although an AIDS patient may have been in the Med III unit of Holy Cross Hospital as early as 1981, the first documented fatality in Utah occurred in 1983. My research has shown that person to most likely have been 34-year-old Michael Painter. Since his death to the latest data available (Dec. 31, 2009), 1,189 Utahns have died of AIDS. The vast majority of them, 921 or 77 percent, died between 1983 and 1999.
So do the people you love a favor and wear a condom. We don’t need to let history repeat itself.