A different epidemic

Ena and I watched the BBC documentary: Keith Haring: Street Art Boy last night which was quite good. When Keith moved to New York and joined the late 1970s gay scene I thought, “He is going to die from AIDS” which brought back a flood of memories of that epidemic.

I was dating Chris Decaria. We were both in college at the University of Utah. Chris worked as a blood gas tech at the hospital in the evenings. I would go up and visit her during her shifts and walk the hallways with her as she went to draw blood from various patients. I remember when we started to see signs on doors of hospital rooms that said, “Virus of Unknown Origin”. This was code for patients who had HIV/AIDS. They had to use code because of the backlash against AIDS patients. People were saying that AIDS patients were being punished by God, that it served them right, that they should be shunned and sent out of society, etc.

AIDS Quilt on display on the Mall in DC

The AIDS Quilt on display in Washington DC. More than 50,000 panels make up the quilt of lives-lost.

In 1978 the assassinations of gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were stunning events to the gay community and to many others. The HIV/AIDS epidemic and the social response by some was yet another.

Chris and I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 to chase jobs in the medical products industry (the Bio Tech of then). AIDS was moving across the nation and AIDS activism was growing. The AIDS quilt project had been on display in the National Mall a couple of years earlier and it was now on tour around the nation.

I remember Chris and I going into San Francisco to the Castro district. We were walking around on a bright and sunny day (must not have been July) and enjoying ourselves as a young couple out in the big city. I caught the eyes of a man, dressed in loose white summer clothing. He was thin and pale and he had skin lesions – Kaposi’s sarcoma – on his face. I remember Chris looking at him and saying, “Kaposi’s sarcoma” sadly. What I most remember was the look on his face and in his eyes, a look of fear and aloneness and as if the world was judging him. Our eyes met briefly and I tried to say to him with my look, “I’m so sorry for you. You are not alone.” Now, I wish I had stopped to say something, though what, I don’t know.

Grace Cathedral in San Francisco was one of the few churches that opened its doors to people with HIV / AIDS. It did not judge but it offered support, comfort, and refuge. For the longest time, they had a sanctuary full of racks for candles for people to light in remembrance to loved ones lost to AIDS. A section of the AIDS quilt hung on the wall. I would go and visit and sit within that sanctuary and think about the epidemic and all the people who were upended and lost. It was and is stunning that Grace Cathedral’s response filled with compassion was the exception to human suffering. So much of America was filled with fear of and loathing for those who had gotten sick – by an unknown disease through an unknown way.

Keith Haring altarpiece at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco

The Keith Haring altarpiece in the Grace Cathedral AIDS Chapel.

All of this came back to me watching the Keith Haring story. How little we have changed over the past 30 years. It is sad that we, as a nation, haven’t learned the lessons of compassion for others.

Keith Haring established a foundation upon his death that makes sure his artwork is accessible to everyone, that provides grants to children in need and the supports those suffering from HIV/AIDS. There is a lot we could learn from this gay artist about giving without judgement and caring for others.