As I wrote last week, I had a hard time understanding my feelings when I heard the news of the massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. Unlike my response to 9/11 – to watch TV for hours at a time trying to make sense of it – I understood why this happened. My response, though, was something that felt a lot like flashbacks. That’s because it was.
What I witnessed over the next week was a replay of the best of what I refer to as ‘the bad old days’: the early days of the AIDS epidemic. That was when I saw the real power of friendship.
Then, like now, many people in the LGBT community were shunned by their families and communities, denounced from the pulpit by men of God. Then, like now, they were fired from jobs and thrown out of apartments with no legal recourse. Then, like now, their lives were at risk every time they walked out the door, because they were despised.
What was different then – though it’s still a factor – was the double whammy of being gay and having AIDS. If you were gay, it was assumed you had AIDS and were a danger to all who came in contact with you. So being HIV-negative didn’t really help.
In the early days a lot was unknown. I was scared at first, too, but educated myself quickly. Many – maybe most – people didn’t bother. But those who did made all the difference.
It had long been the case that friends became family to many in the LGBT community, replacing birth families that rejected them. But when the AIDS epidemic began, those friendships became even more important.
No matter their own HIV status, friends stepped up. They gave financial support or a spare bedroom. They accompanied their friends to doctor appointments, acted as advocates in the event of health care (or lack of care) crises. They fed them, bathed them, buried them.
So now, with Orlando, many of those same tasks are being handled by friends. Again. There is a palpable ‘been there, done that’ feeling to it, though the circumstances are different. And the anger…wow, the anger is white hot. Because once again, the entire community is at risk.
These are people who survived the suffering and deaths of dozens, even hundreds of friends. These are the people who turned a red ribbon into a badge of honor and changed forever the way ordinary citizens deal with the government, the medical establishment and the media.
Do not underestimate them. There has been tremendous change in our world: greater understanding and acceptance of LGBT people. But as we witnessed last Sunday, there is a long way to go.
So it’s back to the streets, the halls of Congress, the internet. They will not rest until they feel safe, once and for all. I’ll be right there with them, any way that I can.
Because that’s what friends do.