By: Andrew Volkers, Contributor
December 1 is World AIDS Day. World AIDS Day is a day of remembering, mourning, learning, and educating about those who live with or have been lost to HIV/AIDS. The history of HIV/AIDS is morbid and gut wrenching. Back in 1982, when AIDS was just coming out of the shadows, it was referred to as GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency. A few months later it was recognized as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). By the time Reagan addressed the issue, over thirty thousand deaths had occurred in the United States alone.
AIDS is a global crisis. Satisfactory education on HIV/AIDS is scarce, due to privileged individuals seeing it as a issue strictly of marginalized groups and “third world” countries. In a global statistics report, The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS found that 36.7 million people are living with HIV, 30% don’t know their status. 35 million have died of AIDS since it emerged in the 1980s.
Frannie Peabody Center, a Maine nonprofit organization devoted to HIV/AID prevention services and direct services for at-risk groups, hosted a candlelit vigil in Congress Square Park in honor of this year’s World AIDS Day. I sat in the cold among Christmas lights and the commotion of the First Friday Art Walk. A man named Kent got on the microphone to tell his story of how AIDS had impacted his life. He lost his first partner during the height of the epidemic and four of his best friends in that time as well. He then spoke about a partner he was with for seven years, Alan. Alan left for a trip to Las Vegas in 2015; he was planning to help campaign for a senator in Nevada. As Alan was en route to Las Vegas, Kent began receiving frantic texts asking where the nearest HIV clinic was in Las Vegas. It came to Kent’s attention that Alan had not been taking his HIV medication. His health deteriorated rapidly; by the time Kent made it to Las Vegas, Alan was already in a coma. Kent and Alan had fought for the LGBTQ+ community and fought for marriage equality. Alan had wanted to get married to Kent in Aroostook county, but Kent had refused to have a wedding in Aroostook county. Now facing regret, Kent slipped a ring onto Alan’s finger as he laid comatose in a hospital dying, and six hours later, Alan was dead.
World AIDS Day deserves far more attention than it gets, the story Kent tells is not uncommon. I participated in the Querying the Past: LGBTQ Maine Oral History Project in which members of the queer community were interviewed. The stories told by individuals who went through the AIDS epidemic are tragic. All of the stories recall painful memories of loved ones dying. Some expressed a fear that their stories, their lives, their histories will be lost over time.
As I stood crying in the crowd, everything was a blur except for the friends next to me and Kent. World AIDS Day isn’t just about spreading awareness, more importantly, it is a day to remember the 35 million lives lost worldwide.