On World AIDS Day, Let’s Focus on the Next Generation

On World AIDS Day, Let’s Focus on the Next Generation

I was exposed to HIV in the early ’80s, when it was called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), and I’ve spent more than 30 years — over half my lifetime — defying the odds. Four of those years in the early- to mid-’90s were spent in and out of the hospital, battling one horrendous infection after another, but somehow I was able to hang on long enough for effective drug combinations to be developed. I remember those early years of losing friends, one after another, and wondering when it would be my turn. And I remember when my health miraculously returned like it was yesterday.

I’m always surprised when I realize that people who are now in their teens and early 20s were just being born around the time when effective antiretroviral drug combinations were developed, and most have no idea how the AIDS pandemic even started. To them it all happened a lifetime ago, and they have no way to relate to what it was like. For those of us who survived those pre-cocktail years, we were so AIDS-weary that we couldn’t wait to put the nightmare behind us. In the process we neglected to pass along our history to the next generation. Their future may depend on learning from our past.

It began with a handful of gay men experiencing some strange cancer that resulted in purplish lesions forming on their skin and internal organs, and others were coming down with a rare type of pneumonia. By the end of the first year, 121 people had died. Ten years later the CDC reported that 100,777 people had died in the U.S. from AIDS complications, and almost one third (31,196) of those deaths were reported during 1990 alone.

So how did this invisible killer-virus seem to come out of nowhere and take so many lives so quickly? For starters, it didn’t happen overnight. The virus had been making its slow and steady way into the bodies of tens of thousands of people long before anyone started showing symptoms of AIDS. Scientists soon discovered that the virus had an average incubation period of about 10 years, which meant that we had been passing it from one person to another for many years without even knowing it.

For millions of people around the world who were first exposed to HIV in the ’70s and early ’80s, it was already too late for them, and most did not survive. Education was practically nonexistent, funding was too little and research wasn’t far enough along to save their lives. It took scientists several years to identify HIV as the cause of AIDS, and a few more years to understand how the virus was transmitted. Then it took another year or two for a test to be developed that could detect the antibodies in our blood, and 15 years for effective drugs to be developed to slow replication of the virus. And we’re still waiting for that elusive vaccine. In the meantime, nearly 30 million people have died from AIDS.

In the 31 years since AIDS was first identified, there have been remarkable advances in life-saving antiretroviral therapies. HIV/AIDS is now considered by many to be a manageable disease like diabetes or high blood pressure. But is it really?

I’m one of the lucky ones, and my HIV is successfully being managed. But for every story like mine, there are many more people with HIV who aren’t so fortunate. I have an insurance policy that can cover the $16,000 a year in medications. I have access to top-notch AIDS specialists. I’m self-disciplined enough to take my meds day after day, year after year. And so far, I have the body stamina to handle all the highly toxic drugs I’ve had to ingest for decades — though my stomach begs to differ, and frequent nausea is a nagging little reminder that I’m not popping M&Ms.

But not everyone is doing as well. The CDC estimates that only 28 percent of people with HIV in the U.S. are successfully keeping their virus under control. They may not have insurance or access to proper care, or perhaps they began drug therapy too late. For some, it’s also possible that the virus has become resistant to all the available medications. Others might be experiencing drug fatigue and are skipping doses, or have stopped taking their meds altogether. Some may not be able to handle the side effects of the drugs. Many people don’t even know they’re HIV-positive and have a disease that needs to be managed. An alarming number of people think a vaccine already exists, and that if they get exposed to HIV, so what? They think it’s no big deal. The reasons for treatment failures are numerous, but one thing is for sure: HIV/AIDS is definitely not a manageable disease for a lot of people.

Of course, there is no vaccine to prevent infection at this time. I have faith that one day there will be, and on that glorious day when HIV/AIDS is eradicated, millions of lives will be spared. But when that day comes, does that mean that we’re out of the woods and can finally, at long last, go back to the way things were? Will we continue to protect ourselves and our partners through safer-sex practices, or are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes?

As we strive for an AIDS-free generation, I wonder if the lessons we learned from the AIDS pandemic will carry over. What happens if another virus is out there lurking in the shadows that we don’t even know about, and for the next 10 years it’s being passed from one unsuspecting partner to the next, until some young man or woman notices a strange purple lesion on their skin?

Philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Let us not condemn the next generation because we remained silent. It’s time we bring the history of AIDS out from the shadows of our memories. Take World AIDS Day to honor the many lives we’ve lost. Talk to a young person about the history of HIV/AIDS, and share with them the lessons we learned. You never know, you just might save someone’s life.

The Parent Crap: 10 Tips for Coming Out

The Parent Crap: 10 Tips for Coming Out

For most people who are struggling to come out, way up at the top of “Life’s Most Dreaded Moments” is uttering, “Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you: I’m gay.” For many parents, it’s not exactly the moment they’ve always dreamed about, either. Reactions from parents can range from, “Not if you want to continue being my son, you’re not,” to, “Duh, we’ve known since you were 6 and could sing ‘Over the Rainbow’ from start to finish.”

If you’re heading home for Thanksgiving dinner with the family and thinking this might be the right time to come out to your parents, here are 10 tips to consider as you plan what to say.

1. Consider the timing. If you’re going to spill the beans at Thanksgiving, do it after dinner, not before or while you’re passing the cranberry sauce. Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to cook this meal, so first enjoy the turkey, and then raise the topic at the appropriate time.

2. Determine whether this is the right time. Do you still live under your parents’ roof or rely on them to cover expenses such as your education, clothes, car payments, gas money or insurance? If you think they’ll be reasonable in their reaction to the news, then go for it, but if you think they might try to use this in some way as leverage against you (for example, restricting who you can see or even perhaps cutting you off financially), then waiting until you’re no longer dependent on your parents might be a better time to come out to them.

3. Be in a good place in your life. Be comfortable and confident with who you are. I came out to my parents after I had learned that my boyfriend of 18 months was cheating on me with another friend of mine. I was heartbroken and tired of living a lie, so I made the mistake of choosing that moment to come clean. Do not spill your guts when they are already tied up in knots. Showing your parents how miserable you feel at the moment is only going to reinforce their imagined fears that you’ll end up living a sad and lonely life.

4. Be realistic and anticipate what their reactions will be. Parents can sometimes surprise you and may not have any issues at all. They may even embrace you for being honest with them. But if they are socially conservative and proud members of Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, don’t expect them to trade in their membership card for a PFLAG T-shirt anytime soon. Be prepared with what you’re going to say and how you’re going to respond to their reactions.

5. Arm yourself with answers ahead of time. There isn’t a concern that your parents could voice that hasn’t already been discussed in dozens of articles and blogs online. You’ll find some great suggestions on how to phrase your answers that will make you sound like Einstein. You know your parents better than almost anyone else, and if you anticipate their concerns, you can be ready with some answers that will be hard for them to dispute.

6. Be ready for the “hellfire and damnation” argument. If your parents are nonreligious, skip to #7. But if they’re anything like my parents were, read on. You probably aren’t going to win this argument in the first conversation, but you can avoid losing it. Educate yourself with some basic answers to what you know will be their main arguments. They may not comprehend what you’re saying or even agree with you if they do, but at least they’ll know you have given this a lot of thought, and you’ll know how to respond to them in later conversations.

7. Stay calm, even if your parents aren’t. You might have someone like Sally Field for a mother — her reaction to her son being gay was, “So the f*#% what?!” — but if your parents are more like mine, be ready for them to get angry, melodramatic and downright cruel. Don’t join in. Keep your cool and be the rational adult in this encounter.

8. Their approval or permission is not required. Don’t expect too much from your parents right away.  It’s taken them a lifetime to believe what they believe, and that’s not going to change in one conversation, and maybe not even in 100 conversations, so try not to measure the success or failure of your first coming out conversation by their initial response. If it’s not what you had hoped for, don’t despair and don’t give up. Give them time, but do not give them the impression that you’re asking for their approval or permission. This isn’t about them. It’s about you and who you truly are. Show them that you are the same person they’ve always loved, just more honest now.

9. Know when and how to make your exit. When I came out to my parents, there was a lot of anger and drama, and I was hurt that they weren’t welcoming this news with open arms. So I took the old “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” approach and stormed out. Though it felt pretty good, it wasn’t very effective. You might consider a less dramatic exit line. It’s important to be sensitive to what they may be feeling and put yourself in their shoes. Their concerns may be all over the map, from, “Will we ever have grandchildren?” to, “Please, God, don’t let my son get AIDS.” Whatever happens, try to leave the door open, even if you or your parents feel like shutting it.

#10  Give them time.  It took my parents years to really understand and accept the truth.  They are both gone now, but one of the last moments I remember before my mother died was when I came home to find my husband, Joe, sitting by the phone with his eyes filled with tears.  Mom’s health was failing fast, but she had an important phone call to make.  She wanted Joe to know that she loved him as if he were her own son, and told him how grateful she was that we had each other to love.  She passed away a few months later.  In the end, she realized that the most a parent can hope for is that their children are happy and loved, and that’s really all that matters.  It didn’t take my father long to come to the same conclusion.  Hopefully, yours will too.  Just give them time.  If they cannot come to terms with who you are, at least you were honest with them and with yourself, and the charade is finally over.

Message to Mitt: Have You Forgotten What It Was LIke When Ann Was in the Hospital?

Message to Mitt: Have You Forgotten What It Was Like When Ann Was in the Hospital?

This minute, there are thousands of people by the bedside of a loved one who is in a hospital, offering their love and companionship.  A statement Mitt Romney made about hospital visitations being a “privilege,” not a “right,” confirms to me that he doesn’t have the capacity to put himself in other people’s shoes (unless they’re in his size and a gift from Sheldon Adelson).

Romney campaign adviser Bay Buchanan tried to sidestep her boss’ callous position to Buzzfeed’s Chris Geidnertried by pulling out the old federal-government-vs.-states’-rights debate.  But let’s put aside the issue of who should get to grant this right and just look at the issue of why any governmental institution would feel that it should be the one to grant the “privilege” of who can be by your side while you are in the hospital or care facility.  The only person to decide that should be the patient and his or her loved ones.

That is precisely why President Obama put into place an executive order in 2010 that puts the decision in the patient’s hands.  Romney wants to eliminate it and give each state the authority of granting visitation rights, which would only serve to create another hodgepodge of inequality.  Obama’s memo couldn’t have been more eloquent and empathetic: “There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital. … Yet every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides.” Gay and lesbian Americans are “uniquely affected” by relatives-only policies at hospitals, Obama said, and added that they “are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives — unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated.”

I checked out what the legal difference is between a privilege and a right, and it’s more complex than I thought. In its simpliest form, however, a privilege is something that’s granted to a specific group of people by the state or another authority that gives them special entitlement.  A right is an inherent, irrevocable entitlement held by all citizens or all human beings from the moment of birth, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  If only Jefferson had added a mention of our God-given rights at the time of illness or death, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.  Perhaps our founding fathers felt it wasn’t necessary and just assumed that any reasonable person would honor that most personal and critical of moments and welcome anyone who is willing to be there for a loved one.

Everyone, at some point in their lives, will be that patient in the hospital bed or that loved one sitting by their side. I know because I spent over three years in and out of the hospital dying from AIDS.  I lost count of how many days, weeks and months I spent in the hospital during those years between 1993 and 1996, but I have never forgotten that most of them were spent with my husband, Joe, at my side — and he wasn’t just visiting me.  There was a foldout sofa bed in my hospital room where he slept most nights. I have no doubt that his presence helped keep me alive.

I’m sure Gov. Romney has spent many nights by his wife Ann’s hospital bedside as she battles multiple sclerosis, which makes his comments even more incomprehensible to me.  The next time he finds himself in that position,  I hope he doesn’t have to hear a presidential candidate say to him that he’s there not because it’s his “right” but because it’s a “privilege” that has been granted to him by the government.

Scout’s Honor: An Eagle Scout and His Father Offer Their Perspective on BSA’s Anti-Gay Policy

Scout’s Honor: An Eagle Scout and His Father Offer Their Perspective on BSA’s Anti-Gay Policy

The Boy Scouts of America is at the center of a controversy once again.  This time it’s for denying a 17-year-old Boy Scout, Ryan Andresen, his Eagle pin (which he earned) because he came out as gay.  My nephew Matt received his Eagle pin about 10 years ago, and his father Jeff, my brother-in-law, was a troop leader.  I was curious about where Matt and Jeff stood on the issue, so I took them out to lunch yesterday. After reading through hundreds of readers’ comments on blogs and articles on the latest BSA controversy, I came up with questions that I thought were most relevant to people’s concerns. Jeff is a great dad, and Matt, now 29 years old, is also a father of a boy and a girl, with another one on the way. Time after time, he has made me proud to be his uncle.  Matt’s troop was sponsored by their church; both Matt and Jeff are Christian, straight and fair-minded and have had vast experiences in the Boy Scouts.  Here’s what they had to say.

Randy: The courts have ruled on numerous cases that the Boy Scouts of America has a right to exclude gay scouts and gay adults as leaders, and that their policy does not constitute illegal discrimination; as a private organization it has a right to freedom of association.  Some readers’ comments about the Ryan Andresen controversy said, “If you don’t like the policy, don’t join.  Go start your own club.”  What are your thoughts on that?

Matt: We are talking about the Boy Scouts of America, not some private book club in someone’s home.  It’s huge. They need to be held to certain standards.  So it’s not as simple as who you include and who you exclude.  How are they going to address the fact that tax payers are paying for land that they’re using, and facilities?  They have to be held accountable for the decisions they’re making.

Jeff:  I believe the BSA or any private organization has a right to include or exclude anyone they want.  But I think culturally, over the years, the Scouts have changed.  Society has made them make those changes.  The organization has become more inclusive on issues of race and religion.  The social conflicts that were attached to a lot of those issues are now gone.  Being gay doesn’t have the same stigma it did 15 years ago.  I think, in time, they will change their position on that.

Randy:  Do you see this as being more about Christian beliefs and principles, or do you think it’s really about concerns over sexual encounters that might happen inside the tent? Or both?

Matt:  I think people will hide behind the religion side of it and say they can’t condone homosexuality.  But the underlying issue, I think, is that people are afraid it will influence their sons.  And I also think that some people think being a homosexual is somehow being morally corrupt.  Like being some sort of a pedophile.  I think they’re scared that their boys will be taken advantage of.

Randy:  It’s well documented that most child molestation and abuse is perpetrated by men like Jerry Sandusky, who you’d never suspect would be a pedophile, but do you think there’s a feeling within the BSA, or with many parents, for that matter, that “gay” equals “pedophile”?

Jeff:  It’s an education process about perceptions.  Here’s this straight, macho guy, and everybody thought he was wonderful.  But 30 years in prison will never atone for all the lives that guy has screwed up.

Randy: Another reader responded to an article about Ryan Andresen with this post:

Openly gay boys are not welcome in the Boy Scouts not because of homophobia, but because they would change the dynamic of the troop. A straight boy might be uncomfortable if he becomes the object of another boy’s affection. A gay boy might be distracted by other gay boys in the troop, and might focus on pursuing intimate relationships rather than on troop activities. In any case, the scouts would be forced to confront all sorts of sexual issues. Is that really appropriate?”

What’s your response to that?

Matt: What I get from that person’s comment is that boys are going on these camping trips and they’re going to be in tents, and there’s going to be sexual activity.  So their answer to that is just don’t have any gay boys in the organization and we’ll just avoid the whole problem.  Well, there shouldn’t be any sexual activity happening at these functions; there shouldn’t be alcohol; there shouldn’t be drugs taken.  There are rules, so just treat it like a rule.  You can’t ban being gay or being attracted to another boy, but you can ban having sexual activity at an event.  To be honest, I think people are associating being gay with having sex.

Randy:  Do you think there’s a concern among parents that a gay scout might influence or somehow change their son into also being gay?

Matt:  I feel that if you’re gay, you’re gay.  If, by chance, there would be some situation where a boy would hit on my son, he’d either just walk away or, if he was born gay and he feels that way, he might possibly act upon it.  And I can’t control that.  He’s going to be who he is.  Trying to isolate him from the real world is not going to stop him from being the person he is.

Randy: BSA feels that same-sex attraction should be discussed outside its program, with parents, clergy, etc.  They feel that the vast majority of parents who want their boys in the BSA do not want these topics introduced or discussed.  Is the subject of sex of any kind ever discussed in the BSA, and what are the guidelines as a Scout Leader if two boys are heard discussing matters of sex?

Jeff:  I don’t recall there were any guidelines at all, and I don’t remember boys talking about sexual issues.  But as a man, and as a Christian, I would take it upon myself to interrupt anything I thought was inappropriate on any issue.  But that would be my own conscience guiding me to do that.

Matt:  The only guideline I can remember is that any adult man is not allowed to sleep in the same tent with the boys.  Even my dad couldn’t sleep in a tent with me on an outing.  I spent my whole childhood in the Boy Scouts, and I don’t recall the topic of sex, heterosexual or homosexual, ever coming up.

Randy:  If Ryan had just not said anything, he would have received his Eagle pin.  But part of the oath is to be “loyal” and “brave.”  “Honest” isn’t mentioned, which I find really interesting; still, I assume it is expected of all good scouts.  So, if Ryan had continued to hide his homosexuality, some people think that would have been in conflict with the oath.  Others feel that he should have dropped out of scouting when he realized that he was gay, and that that would have been the honest thing to do.  What do you think?

Matt:  I think, if anything, Ryan should be commended for being honest about who he is.  You have to hold your head high and fight for what you believe in.  The sexual-orientation issue should have no bearing on him being able to get that rank.

Randy:  How do you think the BSA can align their policies with the “modern family” of today and tomorrow? I’m thinking about the straight boy who has been raised by two gay fathers. Would his fathers be welcome to participate in father/son events?

Matt:  I am certain my leaders would have shown respect and made that dad feel welcome. They would have modeled the way we boys should treat every person we come in contact with.

Randy:  The BSA has belonged to the World Organization of the Scout Movement since 1922, when WOSM was founded.  They use more inclusive terms than the BSA; for example, instead of “Duty to God,” the WOSM uses the phrases such as “adherence to spiritual principles,” so that it also recognizes other beliefs, including Hinduism and Buddhism.  There is nothing officially said about homosexuals, and in contrast to the BSA policy, gay scouts and leaders are not restricted in Canadian and most European associations, including in the UK, Germany and Sweden.  It seems to be working fine for them.  Why do you think it is such an issue for the Boy Scouts of America?

Jeff:  Because our society doesn’t want to change.  I think the European society has been more willing to accept different groups.  Our society has often been about hatred against blacks, hatred against Jews, hatred against the Irish.  I think, slowly our society is changing in the way we feel about the gay people, and eventually the Boy Scouts of America is going to have to adapt to it.

Randy:  Response to the BSA’s policy of excluding gay scouts and leaders has cost the organization in both financial support and public support.  Steven Spielberg resigned from the board several years ago, membership is down, and they just lost their largest corporate donor, Intel, because the BSA’s policy conflicts with the nondiscrimination policies of Intel.  Do you think this will result in the board of the BSA “evolving” in their position?

Jeff:  If it’s anything like our counsel, it was controlled by 10 or 12 guys, and every one of them had to be 80 years old if they were a day.  They’re stuck in their ways.  They’re going to have that kind of mentality, and they’re not going to change.  I think corporations have to look at it differently.  They have to look at their image and how this is hurting their business.

Matt:  I think it will destroy the organization if they aren’t adapting to the times.  I feel putting pressure on them is effective, and it brings awareness.  These businesses and people have power with the stances they take, and their viewpoints.  They make change in our country.  It plays a big part.  There are a lot of people who have zero exposure or don’t know anything about the Boy Scouts of America.  I guarantee this has hit some people, and they know a lot about it now.

Randy:  You’re a father now, of at least one boy, and maybe two in a few months, so let’s suppose your son turns out to be gay and wants to be in the Boy Scouts like his dad.   What would you say to him, and what would you say to the Boy Scouts of America if they rejected him?

Matt:  I feel the pride I have of reaching the Eagle rank would be lost for me in that situation.  If my son was discriminated against, I would do everything in my power to seek justice for him.  I’d be supporting my son 100-percent in any organization, and in any situation.  I honestly feel that if my son were to tell me he was gay, I’m going to stand behind him, and I’m going to support him.

Luck Be a Lady Tonight

Luck Be a Lady Tonight

One of the most sensitive and divisive issues for many people today is the idea of gay marriage.  I’m curious about how people would see the issue if we set aside everything from the debate except for this: what’s fair and just, and what’s not.  There are 1,138 rights guaranteed to a man and a woman through the institution of marriage in the United States, but let’s take a look at just four of them by imagining this as an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Cue Twilight Zone theme music.

Fade in on Rod Serling, who stands in the foreground of a Las Vegas casino, holding a cigarette in his crossed hands, as he says…

“Witness, if you will, four players at a blackjack table, gambling their money in a simple game of cards.  They don’t know it yet, but just 12 short hours from now, the stakes will get much higher, and each of their lives will change in an instant, an instant that will seem like forever… in the Twilight Zone.”

Theme music swells.  Camera tilts up to the usual galaxy of stars.

Here we are at a blackjack table, where we meet Mark and Sharon, complete strangers, both in their 50s, both single, and both getting plastered on tequila shooters while flirting with each other.  Then there’s Randy and Joe (might as well make us the gay couple in this episode). We’re cheering, because Joe was just dealt 21.  We are in Las Vegas for the night celebrating our 30th anniversary of being together, hoping for many more, and still very much in love.

While Mark and Sharon each toss back their fifth shooter, he turns to her and says, “Here’s a really crazy idea: Why don’t we go down the street to the Chapel of the Bells and get ourselves married?!” Sharon throws her arms around Mark with delight, so they grab their winnings, and off they go.  That gives me an idea.  I turn to Joe and say, “Why don’t we go down to that chapel and have another ceremony and renew our vows?”  (We had a wedding ceremony in 1988, decades before gay marriage was even up for debate.)  Joe throws his arms around me with delight, so we grab our winnings and also head off to the Chapel of the Bells.

Over at the chapel, an Elvis impersonator concludes the holy matrimony of Mark and Sharon with a really bad rendition of “Love Me Tender,” and off they go.  We start to take our place before the altar (with lots of chasing LED lights), but Elvis turns to us and says, “Sorry, boys, two dudes can’t get married in Nevada.”  Before I could start singing “Don’t Be Cruel,” he closes the chapel doors on us.

It’s the next day now.  Two cars are seen driving through the desert on Highway I-15, about 10 miles outside Las Vegas.  Mark and Sharon are in the first car, and by a twist of fate, Joe and I are in the car right behind them.

Interior of Mark’s Porsche Carrera. Sharon tells her husband of 12 hours about her life: married twice and divorced twice, no kids, some problem when she was younger that prevented her from bearing children.  Mark also has no children — never wanted any — and never wanted to get married, he says with special emphasis.  Clearly Mark regrets last night, and Sharon can sense it.  She turns to ice but then warms right back up when Mark tells her that he has a substantial portfolio, including a nice home in Malibu.

The newlyweds’ conversation is suddenly broken as Sharon lets out a bloodcurdling scream.  Mark’s Porsche slams into the back of a truck at 70 miles per hour.  Joe tries to brake in time, but we slam into their car.  Sharon miraculously escapes with only a few bruises and cuts.  Same with Joe.  Mark and I aren’t so lucky, and we’re both airlifted to a Las Vegas hospital in critical condition.

Suspenseful music swells.  Cut to commercial.

The story continues at the hospital ER waiting room.  Joe is franticly pacing back and forth.  He pleads with a nurse to let him in to see me, but because he’s not a relative, and because we didn’t think to bring our Durable Power of Attorney documents along on the trip, he has to sit there in the waiting room until someone from Legal is found.  Moments later, I take my last breath.

Sharon is also there in the waiting room and approaches the same nurse: “I must see my husband Mike before he dies!”  The nurse looks at the chart and says, “The patient’s name is Mark.” Sharon looks at the marriage license in her hand and says, “I mean my husband Mark!”  The nurse rushes Sharon in to see her husband.

Cut to Mark, who is barely conscious, as Sharon rushes to his side.

Mark struggles to speak: “Shannon, my darling.”

“It’s Sharon,” she sobs as one of her fake eyelashes falls off.

Mark continues: “Sharon, Shannon, whoever the hell you are, I leave everything that I have to you, my darling wife, including the house in Malibu.  I have another $1 million stashed away in cash, and it’s hidden in the….” Mark dies.

Sharon is dragged away by security as she screams and yells, “In the what?!  In the what, Marvin, you sonofabitch?!”

It’s now six months later.  In the distance is the home that Joe and I built together.  A U-Haul truck is heading down the driveway with Joe behind the wheel.  The camera holds on the foreclosure sign as he drives away.

Joe did everything he could to cover the mortgage, but after he shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off the inheritance taxes and the lawyers, there was nothing left to help cover the payments, so he lost the house.  He should have been able to use my Social Security money to pay the taxes or help with the mortgage payments, but because we were never allowed to get legally married, the federal government kept every dollar I paid in, and Joe got zippo.  In the end, Joe and I were nothing more than business partners who owned some real estate together.  Our 30 years together didn’t even count enough for Joe to be allowed to see me before I died.

That same day, along the coast in Malibu, the waves hit the shore as the camera pans to Sharon sitting on the deck of Mark’s ocean-front home.  She discovered where the $1 million in cash was stashed away, and because she was legally Mark’s wife, she didn’t have to pay a penny in inheritance taxes on any of his estate.

Cut to a closeup of Sharon opening up an envelope that holds Mark’s monthly Social Security check, made out to the wife of the dearly departed.  Camera pulls out as Sharon sings, “Luck be a lady tonight.”

Final scene: Joe is driving the U-Haul truck along the Pacific Coast Highway.  As he passes by Mark’s house — now Sharon’s — the camera holds on Rod Serling, who is standing at the front door as he says…

“Exit Mr. Joe Timko, whose entire life changed on a dime.  And a dime is about all he has left.  Now the question comes to mind: Where is this place where two strangers can meet in the night and, in one brief moment, with one simple, eight-letter word, “marriage,” instantly receive more than 1,000 rights as husband and wife, while those very same rights are denied to another couple who have been together for 30 years?  Where else could this place be but the Twilight Zone?”

Cue theme music.  Roll credits.   Fade to black.

Gone Today, Here Tomorrow (2.0)

Gone Today, Here Tomorrow (2.0)

With the re-release of my memoir, Gone Today, Here Tomorrow, I’ve decided to get into blogging and throw my two cents into cyberspace – at the risk of having them fall back to earth and land on my head.

My book, which began as a short article in the Advocate, morphed into a memoir and was published in 2007. It got some good reviews, but what meant the most to me were the emails and letters that I received from readers. Men, women, young, old, gay, straight, some were HIV positive; others were battling cancer or some other health crisis, and to quote a teenager at a high school I spoke at, some thought it was “cool to read about two old dudes who have been together forever.”

One of the reasons I wrote the book in the first place was to give readers a look inside a thirty-year marriage between two men and help answer the question: What really defines a marriage?

A lot of people seem to have some very strong opinions on the subject and are staunchly against marriage equality every time it comes up for a vote. Problem is, number one, I don’t recall getting to vote on whether or not they could get married, and number two, I’d bet the farm that most of those folks have never gotten to know a gay or lesbian person, let alone a gay or lesbian couple, let alone a gay couple like us who has been together almost four times longer than the average straight marriage has lasted. (In 2009, first marriages between a man and a woman lasted a median of eight years before ending in divorce). So I decided to open up our lives on paper (and E-book) and give people an up close and personal look at what our marriage has been like.

Aside from the fact that Joe crawled to the front lines of the AIDS war and pulled me out of a foxhole and back from death, or that we managed to reinvent our lives after losing everything – including my career, in all other respects, I think ours has had a lot in common with most marriages between two people, straight or gay.

People have managed to invent a whole host of reasons why two people of the same sex shouldn’t have the right to marry. Most objections are based on religious grounds and what they have been told by their pastors or priests throughout their entire lives. Some claim biology and that Tab A fits into Slot B, so it must be what nature had in mind. Others are convinced that same-sex marriage would undermine the institution of marriage and somehow tarnish the holy union between a man and a woman – like divorce hasn’t already taken care of that. I could probably blog myself silly listing all of the reasons why some people still insist that marriage is between one man and one women. Period. End of discussion. But as the song from Porgy and Bess goes, “The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.”

That’s why I thought it was important to include in my book what the Bible really says about homosexuality. Turns out, not much. Just six short passages in all those books, chapters, and verses. Compare that to what the Bible has to say about judging and condemning others, and the score isn’t even close. So how come it’s such a hot-button issue with religious wingnuts? Here’s a hint. Follow the money, and read what I discovered about it all in Chapter 17, which I entitled, “Dear Pat Robertson: My end is near. Kiss it!”

While I was writing Gone Today, Here Tomorrow, it was tempting to get on my soapbox and hammer home why my marriage to Joe is as real and meaningful as any other union between two people who commit their lives to each other. The only difference is that we’ve managed to stay true to that commitment, while the majority of marriages today have failed. The real irony is that many of those same people in failed marriages somehow think Joe and I are the real threat to the institution of marriage. See? There I go starting to get on my soapbox. My point is, while I’m not usually reserved in my opinions and speak my mind quite freely (which can be dangerous when you’ve also got a hot temper), in writing my memoir, I tried to just tell the story and let the reader decide in the end if our thirty years together fits the true meaning of what a marriage is all about in every way that really matters.

There was another reason that I decided to re-release my memoir. I left something out in the first edition that I think is important, and I wanted to clarify some realities about my life today. I think there’s a myth out there, especially among young people, that getting exposed to HIV is not such a big deal anymore. Just pop some pills and everything will be fine. In my efforts to bring my story to a happy ending – and it is – I think that I glossed over the fact that my life is far from normal. While it’s true that HIV is a chronically manageable disease with the right combination of medicines, it’s also true that the drugs have their own set of not-so-pleasant side effects. Then there’s the cost. For my meds it’s about $16,000 a year. Fortunately, I have insurance, but not everyone is that lucky. And not everyone responds to the medications. If they do work, the question in the back of your mind is always, for how long?

Trust me … getting exposed to HIV is still a very big deal despite the fact that it may not be the death sentence it once was.

I have had the opportunity to speak at a number of high schools and Gay-Straight Student Alliances, and I’m always stunned when I realize that most of these young people have only a vague idea or none at all of what the AIDS crisis was like in this country. The drugs came along at about the time they were being born, so they never experienced the horror of it all. I’m grateful their generation will never have to go through what mine did, but I’m also worried that it’s not just the history of the pandemic that’s lost on them, it’s also the lessons we learned from it all that are not being passed on. That scares me because we all know what happens when people do not learn from history. Statistics don’t lie, and the facts are that nearly 50,000 new infections of HIV are reported every year in the U.S., and 17,000 deaths still happen every year (worldwide the death toll is 8,000 people a day).

So those are a few of the reasons why I decided to write Gone Today, Here Tomorrow, and why I wanted to re-release an updated version. My friends who know me well, and of course, Joe, know that I view my survival mostly as a blessing with a huge disclaimer attached. I carry with me always a commitment to the memory of my friends who didn’t make it through this war, and to pass along the lessons we learned to the next generation – whether it’s a cautionary tale or just a story about two old dudes who have been together forever.