I’m so glad that my wise beyond her years friend Jamie posted about Elizabeth Glaser today. I remember the first time I became aware that there was this terrible disease called AIDS. It was the Sunday before classes started back at Millsaps after Christmas break, and my roommate and I were at the local gay bar for Beer Bash. For those who aren’t gay heteros like myself, Sunday is beer bash day. For a college freshman, Beer bash=cheap beer and fun guys to dance with. We got there really early so there was only other person at the bar with us. He was kind of scary to us because he was shirtless and had rings through his nipples. Piercings like that were pretty unheard of in those days and we struck up a conversation with him regarding whether those things hurt and why on earth would he do something like that.
He was very good natured, answered our questions, and then pulled several flair buttons out of his pocket that had different designs on them in pink and black. One said AIDS=Death. He said that he was selling these buttons to raise money for research on “the gay cancer”. I was really worried when I heard this, because I had some really good friends who were gay, and I definitely didn’t want them to get cancer. He explained that it was a disease that gay guys were getting and no one know why and that lots of guys in New York were dying. I bought the buttons and pinned them on my Calvin Klein denim jacket (also racy for Jackson at the time), but I didn’t think much more about it.
And then my friend Buff’s brother died. And the most talented florist in our town. In 1985, five minutes into watching one of my favorite movies Pillow Talk, an emergency breakthrough came on the television announcing that my heartthrob Rock Hudson had just died. And then Willie Smith, Perry Ellis, Keith Haring, Ricky Wilson and Halston. It was as though there was a punishment for being gay, people were starting to feel desperate about catching a virus that ensured you’d die a really ugly death WITH pain and suffering. In 1988 I heard from my best friend the neonatal nurse that she was attending to a set of twins who were born three months prematurely, crack addicted and HIV positive. Her words and tears over the futility of the situation still haunt me as I think about the phone call I got when the babies died.
After seven years of sadness and trepidation I can remember feeling SO relieved when I watched a program that showed Elizabeth Glazer behind the scenes on the set of filming the PSA for AIDS research with Ronald Reagan. It was an enormous leap in AIDS awareness for the mother who contracted and passed the HIV virus to her two children to convince the former president whose dismal record on helping the disease to say “I’m not asking you to send money. I’m asking for something more important. Your understanding. Maybe it’s time we all learned something new.” . Because she worked every connection she had in Hollywood and beyond, Her statement that “Every person with AIDS is somebody’s child. AIDS is not a political issue. It’s a virus and it kills people, no matter who they are.” , had opened the door to lift the stigma of AIDS and finally get people on board to find a cure. It is because of this brave woman that a national treasure like Magic Johnson is still alive after a diagnosis twenty years ago.
Since watching the video above, I have been randomly bursting into tears because toward the end I saw that her son Jake is still alive. This is a person who was born with HIV and is now approaching his third decade on this earth. As a mother I just can’t wrap my mind around what it must have felt like in the early days of their story and how terrifying that must’ve been to have this mysterious illness, to lose a child to it, and to know that another could die as well. Jake’s mother’s fortitude so profoundly affected medical science so that at least one of her babies could go on – to see him there on the screen smiling and handsome like his daddy just breaks my heart and inspires me at the same time. That’s one amazing legacy. I want us never to forget her.