Pride Month — HIV/AIDS

As we suspected, Stephen had HIV/AIDS. Facing the disagreeable Reno winter weather, he reluctantly moved back to warmer Fresno to live with his mother.

While many of us might be surprised to learn the first human case of AIDS arose in 1959 in Africa, the “gay plague” or “gay syndrome” (originally called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) hit the gay community like a cyclone and quickly took the lives of many thousands of gay men. Stephen was one of them.

This was the early 1980s, and the disease was “new.” There really wasn’t any effective treatment and a diagnosis essentially amounted to a death sentence. Of course, we now know it wasn’t God’s response to the gay lifestyle or some divine retribution against evil sinners as some claimed. It simply was a new disease that had jumped from monkeys to humans and once it entered the gay community, that groups’ practices provided the perfect environment for its spread. When the time’s right, evolution becomes a cruel master, I guess.

I once asked Stephen if he knew how he had contracted the disease, and he said yes, he did. While a student at UCLA, he’d frequented several gay bath houses where the level of promiscuity (which I won’t share the details of here) was far, far beyond my imagination, comprehension or understanding.

“Everyone who went to those bath houses has AIDS,” Stephen said.

“I’m not surprised,” I said.

Still, I found the very concept of a sexual encounter leading to a horrible death hard to wrap my head around. In those days before the Internet, stories circulated of a man picking up a woman in bar and having sex only to discover she’d written, “Welcome to the world of AIDS” on the bathroom mirror in bright red lipstick. Fear of the disease swept through the straight community as well. Gay fear and hatred grew even stronger.

In Stephen’s case, his immune system just shut down and his body couldn’t fight off even the most mundane things — bacteria we all have on our skin that doesn’t cause any of us any problem at all suddenly exploded into colorful colonies that covered most of Stephen’s body. Scabs. Sores. Rashes. Pus-filled boils. Flaky skin. Hair falling out. Varieties of fungus growing in his mouth and throat.

Then, once those colonies take hold, they start battling each other for dominance. Stephen’s most troubling problems arose from the out-of-control bacteria and bugs reproducing and populating his gut, leading to all sorts of digestive issues and concerns.

Even today, I shudder just thinking about Stephen’s suffering. It broke my heart to see a human being suffer these indignities, especially such a kind and gracious man as Stephen whom I called my friend.

Then he dropped a bombshell. Living with his mom wasn’t working out.