This year will mark the 33rd Anniversary of HIV/AIDS in the United States and I have been reflecting on the impact it has had on my life. I “came out” as a lesbian in 1986, what some consider to be the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the U.S. There I was out and proud at 18 years old. In a mostly unaccepting world, my gay friends became my family. That’s when it all started.
The oceans of change washed ashore and brought with it HIV/AIDS which took away whole groups of friends in unforgettable waves. As soon as the wave crested and came up upon the shore, the sea-foam disappeared…. absorbed by the sand of my heart. Then the first wave was pulled back out to sea, leaving only the shadowed line of moisture that had soaked in between the tiniest pebbles of sand. After several waves of losing people to HIV/AIDS, I became very angry with an unjust world and that is when I discovered ACT UP: The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.
It was a very creative, tumultuous and emotional time for everyone in the group. As angry and hurt as I was, activism was the only outlet I could find to express those feelings so I joined the fight for equal medical treatment and research. After a while, I focused more on educating the community about risky behaviors and giving out condoms. Most of my young lesbian years were interwoven with this struggle which could sometimes feel never-ending.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic had carved out so many pieces of my heart, yet in doing so it had set me on a new path of activism. Upon entering college, I felt that I was trying to build the rest of my life on top of only half of a foundation and with a heart devastated by the waves of change. Ripped-apart emotionally, exhausted spiritually, and still trying to heal my life… somehow…my new challenges began.
In community college, with a small band of out students, I led a dramatic fight to get the words “sexual orientation” added to the local community college district’s non-discrimination policy and was awarded the Whitman Brooks scholarship because of the long fight that ensued but ended in victory. During my university years, I tried to understand the events of my life by relating them to what I was learning. Being open about my experiences and my search for healing and meaning was hard but I found support and encouragement at my conservative university. I became the first out-lesbian in the honors program, I helped in the fight to keep the gay club funded and went to the first gay dance.
Looking back I can still feel the grief and anger that so made up my life back then. These emotions are like frienemies (friends and enemies) because even though they threatened to consume me they also helped me survive and ultimately turned into tangible inspiration to transform an unjust world to include those who were excluded. This transformation became a personal mission and allowed me to weave my love for my lost friends and family into a way that gives back to others in order to honor their lives; lives brutally cut short. My life is intricately intertwined with their legacy.
Today in the U.S., HIV/AIDS treatments have been continually upgraded to enhance health and quality of life, prevention has been promoted periodically in the media, and ACT UP has expanded to become an important global presence www.actup.org. Although a lot has changed, the waves of infection are still here, lapping in the distance and ready to strike the next unbelieving and complacent generation. The ACT UP chant still holds true…”Silence = Death.” It is time for us as a community to stand up, reach out to our youth with both support and education. Doing so not just to ensure the health of their future but also to heal ourselves.
Micaela Kaibni Raen is an Arab-American author whose work explores cultural, socio-economic and sexual themes that critically impact women and their families. Her work is dedicated to supporting peace, advocating for issues facing the international LGBTQ community and reflects a personal journey as she redefines herself within her various communities and beyond.