Just weeks before my brother died of AIDS in 1987, he went to DC to protest more money for AIDS research. That trip shortened his life dramatically. I’ll never forget that day with tears streaming down his face he said, “In 20 years AIDS won’t be a death sentence, and we won’t be second class citizens…why can’t I just live another 20 years.” My dearest Skip, your day has come!
This is the article that was my/our family’s “coming out.” It was published in the Louisiana Weekly newspaper in the spring of 2003. A minority publication distributed throughout New Orleans. It was a front-page story.
Lonely Road to Heaven
My only brother, Skip, died of AIDS in November, 1987. Just one week after his 29th birthday.
For more than 20 years I have harbored this secret guarding my brother’s reputation. He received his death sentence in May 1986, and the disease gradually stripped him of any semblance of dignity. But he was not alone. This disease scarred our entire family. The secrecy, lies, discrimination and torturous accusations surrounding it consumed our lives. The social death owned by AIDS plagued us all.
Skip’s funeral was a testament to society’s web of lies and deceit. The funeral hall was crammed with well-wishers and casual acquaintances. Most were curious busybodies all clambering to witness the funeral of someone with AIDS. They kept telling my family, “He’s so good-looking, I didn’t realize how attractive he was.” It was a moment of truth for most; Skip was a real person, not a “monster.” Where were these people when he was sick, when he needed them the most? Nowhere. Because back then he was a monster, a social outcast to be quarantined.
Many families of AIDS victims lie about the real cause of their loved one’s premature death. The social stigma of the disease prevents the natural cycle of grieving. We are silenced by our fear of being lectured: “It was their reckless lifestyle that killed them.”
Hiding the truth and fear of discovery pulverized our daily routine. Skip feared losing his job; my youngest sister feared being expelled from school and I feared the hospital wouldn’t let him hold my newborn baby.
It was as if we dismissed my brother’s entire existence. We could never brag about Skip’s incredible courage in fighting social injustices. I later wondered if our vow of secrecy proliferated the spread of the disease. Perhaps if more of us revealed the truth, I think then, we could help dispel the stigma of AIDS.
After 25 years of the AIDS epidemic, society continues to brand its victims as having a deviant lifestyle. I drive by a church billboard on a busy interstate that lays testament to the Christian belief that God has delivered a plague of punishment to AIDS victims. The message is huge: “AIDS–Judgment Has Come.”
At the same time my brother was wrestling with his tragic life, our family was stumbling to find peace. I was struggling with a complicated pregnancy. My mother was still reeling from my father’s death and could not bear the thought of losing her son. She was both physically and mentally broken.
Vivacious and amiable, Skip enjoyed a wide circle of friends and never surrendered to the disease. A lover of life, he never missed an opportunity to party on his favorite holidays, Mardi Gras and Halloween.
The New Orleans/AIDS Task Force provided an immeasurable level of support to my brother and my family. They developed a peer support program where an AIDS patient was assigned a special confidant, a benefactor who guided him through the maze of medical, legal and social demands.
Skip’s buddy was a savior and devoted friend. He and many others cultivated an entourage of professionals and friends to assist Skip in dealing with everyday life. The Lazarus House, a facility providing temporary housing for HIV/AIDS victims, was also a godsend to those who no longer had families that supported them. But many battles were still lost. Skip’s fight to attain disability benefits cast a stiffening blow to his confidence in the American government.
Skip, a pale shell of a man in the throes of AIDS, hired an attorney to help present his case to the Social Security Administration. The government refused his request for disability, forcing my brother to beg for help. My mother exhausted her savings, and friends continued to feed and nurse Skip through his illness. Three years after his death, my mother would receive approval of social security funds.
Now is the time to regroup and put away our prejudices and misconceptions. Both heterosexuals and homosexuals must unite to quell the chaos. UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot reminds everyone that we are no longer dealing with the gay white male disease from the 80s. In a November 2002 report by the UN and World Health Organization, 42 million people are living with HIV and half of them are heterosexual women. Worldwide, there are 14,000 new infections daily and 6,000 of them are among people between the ages of 15-24 years. AIDS is everyone’s disease; it knows no gender or bias to race and ethnic origin.
We all must continue the crusade my brother and his comrades brought to the White House on October 12, 1987.
On that day, gays all over America converged in Washington to demonstrate and protest discrimination against homosexuals and to demand the federal government appropriate more funds to fight the AIDS virus. With an impassioned fervor, my brother, racked with the disease, marched from the White House to the Capitol.
The march received national attention and my brother’s voice was finally heard in an article published in the New Orleans Times Picayune.
Hiding his thinned-down physique with a Members Only jacket and baggy khakis, Skip found a renewed sense of urgency. He had one last mission, one mark to leave.
It was his last party, his last hurrah; it was his time to shine. “This is very exhausting for me,” he said. “But I’m going to stick through to the end to prove a point.”