Steve Beagle is a UNC Field Coordinator and Disease Intervention Specialist for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services eHealth Services. He wrote the following blog post about World AIDS Day, which was Dec. 1, for Adam4Adam, an online dating website designed for men to meet other men.
Most of my summer vacation days during elementary school were spent watching MTV (back when MTV played music videos). This was during the middle of the 1980s. And though my main interest was heavy metal, Michael Jackson, and Weird Al Yankovic, MTV was one of the first cable TV stations that promoted AIDS awareness.
This stuff sounded horrible. I envisioned AIDS being little, explosive spheres circulating throughout the bloodstreams of the infected- exploding, and causing them to die well before their time; all because they simply had sex. People would find out they had it, and within a few months or years- they would be dead.
I did not think of AIDS as a “gay disease” when I was 10-years-old. I don’t remember ever hearing the first term applied to it in the late 1970s/early 1980s: GRIDS (Gay Related Immunodeficiency Syndrome). I figured that most people were infected through sharing needles, and who in their right mind would want to stick a needle in their arm- on purpose?
MTV continued to publicize and talk about AIDS. I remember the passing of Pedro from “The Real World,” one of the first “reality” TV shows. I remember a video for a song whose lyrics went “People are still having sex, this ‘AIDS’ thing isn’t working,” as if someone or some group of people created AIDS to get people to stop having sex if they were gay, bisexual, or not having sex for the sole purpose of making babies.
Celebrities I had never heard of were also becoming infected: Rock Hudson, Arthur Ashe, Magic Johnson, and Freddie Mercury. Not really knowing any openly gay people in the early 1990s, I decided that I could accept Freddie Mercury having AIDS. I was sad that he was dying before I would have a chance to see him live and in concert with Queen. I decided that his sexual choices were alright with me since he made great music. Don’t worry- I have since outgrown homophobia.
When I was (finally) lucky enough to have sexual experiences of my own, I remember thinking that I wanted to be tested for STDs. I did not have any symptoms, but I had rarely used condoms and I was afraid that at the very least, I could have HPV or HSV-II and not know it.
I was not familiar with health departments and community health centers, so I called the local hospital for STD testing. The lady who answered the phone encouraged me to make an appointment with my family doctor. I could not do that. My family went to that doctor. What if he told them that I sought out STD testing? They might think I was “dirty” or “weak” for being open to such a thing, though I was fortunate that my mom had “The Talk” with me way back in second grade.
My ex-fiancé once told me that if I was too embarrassed to buy condoms, then I shouldn’t be having sex. Even though she was two years younger than I at the time, she was obviously more mature.
Fast forward to the 2000s and I had my first job as a Disease Intervention Specialist in public health. My mission was to interview people that tested positive for HIV, in an effort to ensure that their partners were informed, confidentially, that they may have been exposed and to provide free testing to those partners.
In the early 2000s, I talked mostly with commercial sex workers that used crack and their customers. A common question at the time was “How long do I have to live?”
Since around 2005, most of my clients have been MSM (men who have sex with men). These gentlemen have taught me a lot about life, LGBT culture, and how to assist other MSM that may not (initially) be open to discussing HIV, testing, care, and partner notification.
In 2016, instead of just giving people a list of phone numbers for case management, we make that first appointment with an HIV specialist for our clients (if they have not already themselves).
A Bridge Counselor or Bridging Case Manager can transport clients to their first appointment. Thanks to Ryan White, there is money to assist clients with expensive medication and lab tests necessary to manage the infection through ADAP, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. Keep in mind that people do not have to be diagnosed with AIDS to receive this assistance, and case managers can assist with completing the paperwork.
As we remember those who have passed, those that lived in a time with fewer treatments, resources, and education about HIV, we can honor them by enjoying the lives that we are living!
If we know that we are infected, we can get treatment, which means a longer, healthier life (a normal life span) and prevents transmission to others.
If we are simply curious to see if this infection could be in our bodies and not causing symptoms, we can get tested for free.
Let’s look forward to a time in the near future when there will be no new infections, and “AIDS” disappears from our vocabulary and our world.