Sharing Gay HIV/AIDS History Should Be a Source of Hope and Pride

Reading about Herb Weatherwax riding the motorized scooter he calls "Herb's Hot Rod" around the visitors center grounds at Pearl Harbor made me think about the generation gap in gay America.

How's that? Weatherwax was a 24-year-old Army private in Honolulu when Japan bombed Oahu on December 7, 1941. Twenty-one ships were sunk or heavily damaged, 320 aircraft were damaged or destroyed, and 2,400 sailors, Marines and soldiers were killed on the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said "will live in infamy."

Today, Weatherwax, at 96, shares his story as a Pearl Harbor survivor with school children -- and everyone else who will listen. Teachers report that meeting him has transformed their students, igniting in them a desire to learn, giving them a tangible connection to an historic event.

Sharing the stories of their lives is how people from time immemorial have passed on knowledge, skills and wisdom to younger generations. This sharing of stories about heroic deeds and terrible tragedy is how real communities perpetuate a sense of continuity over time. Knowing you are but the latest in a long line of brave men and women, keeping alive their memories, is what inspires hope.

Yet there are those who apparently believe they can score points with younger gay men by denigrating their own generation who witnessed and survived the devastation of the dark years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Dismissing as irrelevant the experience of an entire generation of gay men simply because they are older and their experience was different from that of younger gay men does nothing more than perpetuate the stereotypes that make young gay men dread getting older. It doesn't make an older man any younger to insult his age peers, though it does reveal a profound lack of understanding of human culture and history.

Let me be very clear: I have never felt guilty or ashamed that I survived the "dark years" of the nineteen-eighties and nineties while so many of my friends did not. I considered myself fortunate, for sure. Even before HIV affected me at the most personal level with my own diagnosis at age 47, I certainly felt sad and lonely as I missed and mourned my friends. But my medical slap-in-the-face made me more determined than ever to continue maturing into a wise older man, and to use my skills as a journalist to document and share stories from our people's very recent history.

It's not a "scare tactic" to share the facts of our experience -- unless, of course, the storyteller's experience and aging have made him bitter rather than wise. If he is bitter, he would be wise not to share his stories.

I am not beating anyone with the corpse of my dearly departed when I tell stories about them and about what I call "gay America's heroic legacy in the AIDS plague." But I am most definitely offering my experience as an older gay man, a survivor of the horror and witness to the heroism -- and now living with HIV myself -- as an example of resilience and strength from which others, including gay men who are young today, can learn.

The claim that HIV/AIDS is an entirely different experience for young gay men today may make a certain amount of sense for those who have great private insurance, respond well to antiretroviral therapy, are oblivious to the existential crisis that a deadly infection arouses, and aren't troubled by the shame that society -- most particularly other gay men -- heap on those of us living with HIV. But I doubt that the young lower-income gay men of color who are the leading edge of new HIV infections and aren't learning they are positive until the virus has destroyed their immune system -- a very 1980s scenario -- would make that claim.

I would suggest that instead of pitting generations of gay men against one another, a better approach to building healthy gay men and a healthy community is to respect and learn from one another's experience. Trying simply to humiliate and silence older men whose young lives included terrible loss and sorrow, who are survivors, robs the gay community of a vast store of inspiration, survival skills and wisdom.

Listening to, and learning from, our people's stories -- like the students who listen to Herb Weatherwax's stories about the bombing of Pearl Harbor 72 years ago -- can be just what it takes to inspire younger gay men to believe they have a future worth living, and staying healthy and HIV-negative, for.