The craziest thing I heard during the 1980s AIDS panic

File this under crazy s#*t overheard the height of the 1980s AIDS panic: you’re not guaranteed to die of AIDS. It was a shocking concept in 1988, one that had never occurred to me, a 26-year-old, black gay man who had recently confirmed what I’d suspected since age 23: I was HIV-positive and therefore infected with what the media faithfully called “the deadly disease.”

“…that was the only way to get the latest info on why you were dying, or how you were going to die.”

Life expectancy for someone living with HIV/AIDS was a couple of years at best, so imagine some guy at “AIDS information meeting” filling my head with the crazy notion that my fate wasn’t signed, sealed and delivered to a hospital bed where would fade to skin and boned like so many others dying of AIDS in the 1980s.

I was attending said “AIDS information meeting” because that was the only way to get the latest info on why you were dying, or how you were going to die, and what, if anything, you might be able to do about it. Plummer Park. West Hollywood. The place was packed with mostly men, no doubt just as scared and desperate for any life-saving information that might be available.

Present that night were people who were already sick and dying, many of them being helped by others who were perhaps a little less sick and not as dire at the moment. Yes, there was a lot of the sick taking care of the sick during the AIDS epidemic.

When one of the speakers said “you’re not guaranteed to die of AIDS,” the atmosphere in the room shifted, brightened, if only momentarily, as even the idea of an alternative reality was now a collective conception.

Briefly, we were allow to pause, exhale and dream a better dream. It was such a seminal moment for me, I later included it in my loosely autobiographical novel, Bridge Across the Ocean.

The main character Derek, is, surprise!, a 26-year-old, black gay man dealing with his newfound HIV/AIDS status. He takes off for Cancun, Mexico, where a night of dancing takes him back to that fateful night at Plummer Park. Roll clip!

“When the deejay broke into Whitney Houston’s “Love Will Save The Day,” I nearly sank to the floor with thank-you-Jesus gratitude. I first danced to this song the night of my first AIDS medical update meeting in West Hollywood. It was a few weeks after testing positive, when I was still mired in uncertainty. That night, nervous and scared, I heard a handsome young doctor with a calm, reassuring voice speak to me and a room full of several hundred fellow warriors about fighting AIDS. I came out of there knowing that I wasn’t alone, that there were things I could do to be healthy and survive. Afterwards, I went to Rage, the club in the heart of West Hollywood, bursting with hope and life. I danced alone, reeling in my aliveness, and when Whitney came on, singing about not giving up because love will save the day, I felt a new high, spinning around the floor, believing it.

Now, in Diablo’s, Whitney crooned with her golden voice and I whirled around the dance floor, doing anything I wanted. Bodies flew by me in a blur. I had wings. Love was gonna save the day. It was everywhere, especially inside of me. I loved myself now, something I wasn’t sure of a year ago. “Love,” shouted Whitney and love I felt, throughout my body and with every move I made. Yeah, Derek, you love yourself, baby. You’re a good person. No matter what you are, do, say, think or feel. The most valuable lesson you’ve learned this year. Celebrate it. Love it. Live it. Be it. Love yourself. This night. This dance. You….”

— from Bridge Across the Ocean

Because all of us did not perish and the world we created still exists.

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