Walking among HIV's dead at Congressional Cemetery

Published: November 25, 2014

washington blade
Nathan A. Paxton
Original Article:  bit.ly/1ttXhu4

I encounter the HIV epidemic in unexpected places, particularly when I take my dachshunds out for a walk.

I live near the Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and one of the programs of the cemetery allows some of us to walk our dogs among graves of the well known and almost anonymous. The graves of J. Edgar Hoover, Elbridge Gerry (he of the “gerrymander”) and John Philip Sousa get most of the attention.

In quieter ways, I can read the toll of the killing years among gay men in Washington. Most often, the signs are demographic: single men, not buried in a family plot, who died between the early-‘80s and mid-’90s, between the ages of 25 and 55. Sometimes I’ll find these graves in clusters, as if friends and lovers wanted to share proximity in death as in life. Often, though, I will find these graves by themselves, and I wonder what story lies behind the solitariness.

Some graves proclaim their gayness loud and proud, like that of Leonard Matlovich, the first active duty member of the armed forces to challenge the ban on gay and lesbian people serving in the military. Another mentions being a “proud gay educator.” Once you know what to look for, you see these men everywhere. As Walter and Russell sniff and bound jauntily among the headstones, the three of us walk among HIV’s dead, just as we walk among Union and Confederate dead.

I study the politics of epidemics, especially HIV, and it’s often said that one’s research manifests one’s own demons. My own years of research on the development of different countries’ HIV/AIDS policies stemmed, I came to see, from a personal recognition, as much as intellectual motivations.

But for the accident of the year in which I was born, it is quite probable that—as a gay man in America—I would not have been alive to do my work and live my life. HIV, first understood as AIDS, made its first recognized appearance in gay men, and it is often still thought of as a “gay disease,” here in the United States and in the developing countries I study.

Had I been born just a few years earlier, I would be smack in the midst of that generation that first showed the evidence of one of the worst plagues in human history. It is quite probable that I would now be dead.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ’90s, it was hard not to notice that gay men between 40 and 60 were sometimes rare, even missing. Friends who had been living there less than 10 years earlier told stories: My friend Billy spoke of attending two memorials a weekend for months on end; Len remembered wearing full sterile garb to visit dying friends in the hospital in 1982; and people at my church, gay and straight, remembered constant care rotas for a changing and diminishing set of friends and lovers. Len, a retired professor, told me that caring for his ailing mother in the late 1970s kept him home and out of the bars: “That’s probably what kept me alive.”

Full text of article available at link below:  bit.ly/1ttXhu4


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