By Tomas Rodriquez & Christopher White

Today, on National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, two GSA Network staff members share their coming of age stories and perspectives about growing up in two very different generations–Millennial and Generation X–and different eras of the AIDS epidemic. This is their story.

Mourning Elders I’d Never Get to Meet

Tomas Rodriguez is a 25 year old, queer, latinx cisman and is the Project Coordinator of GSA Network’s Safe and Supportive School Project (SSSP)

HIV/AIDS wasn’t a topic of conversation for a closeted person like myself in the mid-2000’s. The first time I heard about it was in my semester-long sex education class. I honestly didn’t think anything of it; it was just another disease I wouldn’t get because I knew better. I eventually came out in high school, and no one was surprised. I started to party, let loose, and follow the lead of others.

I wasn’t sexually active until my early 20s when I met my first partner. It was instant chemistry, I remember myself never asking any of the questions you’re suppose to ask before sex. I didn’t ask if we should use a condom or if he had been tested recently. Why would he put me at risk? We dated for a couple of months but I eventually moved to San Francisco for college and didn’t think anything of it. I got a message a few months later that I should get tested. I tried to inquire more but he wouldn’t go into details.

I was livid. I beat myself up for trusting this person, for not getting tested sooner. I judged myself for “knowing better” and no matter what I did I couldn’t change the outcome. There I was on a foggy San Francisco afternoon at a free clinic. I didn’t know what STI/STD my former partner had so I didn’t know what to test for. I was incredibly unhelpful to the receptionist who was guiding me through the paperwork, their demeanor shifted from friendly to disappointed. A few nervous laughs after each test they said I could expect a phone call if they needed to follow up. Translation: if you test positive for something, we’ll contact you. I remember walking out of the office feeling cruddy. There was no follow up so I felt a sense of relief but I didn’t feel good. I wondered if this is what other people my age went through – that it takes a scare for us to take our health seriously.

A couple years later, the AIDS crisis of the 80s came up in a gay bar during a Hillary/Bernie debate. This was after Hillary credited Nancy Reagan for being an advocate for HIV/AIDS research (yikes). I remember talking to an older man at the bar and he was saying that it was a different time back then. Tears started to form in his eyes. “We lost a lot of good people, most of my friends” he said. I responded with a hug and said “I’m sorry I won’t get to meet them.” We sat there for a minute crying and mourning a generation of queer and trans elders I’d never get to meet.

Carrying the Memory of a Generation

Christopher White, PhD, is a 45 year old, white, gay man and is the Director of GSA Network’s Safe and Supportive School Project (SSSP)

In July 1996, highly active anti-retroviral treatment (HAART) became the standard treatment for people living with HIV and AIDS and marks the time when we began thinking about it as a long-term, chronic illness rather than a fatal disease. It’s also the summer that I moved from Texas to New York City, 24 years old and two years out of college. It was a thrilling, wondrous, terrifying, and amazing time in my life and an amazing time to be living in NYC. Gentrification (or urban renewal, whatever you want to call it) had started but it was still a gritty town where you didn’t have to go far to find something glittery, sleazy, and titillating. I spent a great deal of time exploring, drinking, making friends, having fun, and taking advantage of a thriving, downtown nightlife scene surrounded by so many beautiful, young, gay men. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized why all the people in the clubs and bars were so young. I always thought it was just because I hung out where the young people were.

A few years ago, I was having a conversation about HIV with an elder friend of mine, a lesbian in her sixties who moved to San Francisco the same year I was born. She said the strangest thing to me: “In the 80s, all the gay men in the Castro over 40 disappeared. In 2011, they started coming back.”

I turned 40 in 2011. I’m not HIV+ but I have many friends who are. None of us thought we’d live to be forty. We knew what our fate was because we had seen it happen. And now I knew why there were no older men in the gay bars and clubs in NYC in the mid nineties.

I remember the first time that I heard about the “mysterious cancer” killing gay men in NYC, LA, and San Francisco. I must have been around 11 or 12, and while I didn’t fully understand what it meant, I knew that it was about me. When Rock Hudson died and, soon after, Liberace died, I knew it was about me. I turned sixteen the year Liberace died in Palm Springs. I dated my first boyfriend when I was sixteen. We started having sex on his sixteenth birthday; I was seventeen. Neither of us had ever had sex with anyone before, but we used condoms because we knew that gay sex equaled death.

I think a lot about how messed up it was to come of age during a time when having sex the way that I wanted to have sex meant a high possibility of catching a virus that would kill me. What does that do to your psyche? What does it do to the ways that you think about sex and pleasure?

In college, I remember going to get tested for HIV at the student health center at my university every few months. I would go with friends and we’d laugh at the pseudonyms we’d create to give to the nurses for our anonymous HIV antibody tests. I regularly used Kylie Green Jeans (Kylie, duh. Green Jeans because of Captain Kangaroo, silly and childish but so comforting to be a child again). You then had to wait two weeks to get your results and were told to spend time thinking about what we were going to do if the test results came back positive. Twenty years old and you have to imagine what it would be like to be told that you have 5-10 years to live. I never tested positive. Some of my friends did. Now you know why we didn’t think we’d live to see forty.

Now, I’m almost 46 years old; 50 is just around the corner. I’ve done so many things that I never imagined I would do, like riding in the AIDS LifeCycle – a 545 mile, seven-day charity bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for prevention and treatment for people with HIV/AIDS because it’s not over. It’s just different now.

I remember overhearing a group of twenty something, gay men on the ride talking about old men and AIDS, and I saw them roll their eyes during the memorials. Yes, they were being jerks and they angered me. Then I realized that they don’t know. They don’t know what it’s like to see a huge portion of the generation ahead of you die off from a disease. They know what it’s like to get tested, but they don’t know what it’s like to expect a prognosis of 5-10 years to live. They don’t know what it’s like to equate sex and pleasure with death. And now it’s my job as an emerging elder in my community to tell the stories and carry the memories of those whom I never got the chance to know.