Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Feeling fairly distant from AIDS during the epidemic

December 1 is World AIDS Day. Symptoms of what was later called AIDS first surfaced in the news 40 years ago in 1981.

At that time, I had recently graduated from college, but still spent time at Sexual Minorities Center at WWU. That's where I first remember hearing about this syndrome as it was in the news.

I felt pretty distant as I had always been on the edge of the gay scene anyway. In Bellingham, it seemed like the scene, I knew about at least, was mostly just the bar and the campus group. Back then, the bar was called the Hut Tavern.

I didn't go to the bar often as it seemed like it was too extreme in terms of smoking, drinking and reckless partying. Back then, I was looking for in depth conversation.

In the media, there was talk of AIDS being somewhat related to unhealthy lifestyles though early on there was some compassion. Whether a virus could be blamed for it, or not, was still not known until (so I read recently) 1983 when the virus was identified for more certain.

In the early 1980s, there was a weight loss snack called "Aids Candy Cubes." "Lose weight with the aid of Aids." Those ads disappeared soon after the disease started being called AIDS.

Much debate in the media centered around whether AIDS could be caught from casual contact. Some folks were paranoid and shunned folks they thought were more likely to have AIDS.

Scientists kept insisting that AIDS did not spread from casual contact. It was mostly a venereal disease, but also starting to be reported to come from things like shared needles.

At one point there were some feature articles about a few people worrying that they might catch AIDS from the communal challis at church. This was also disputed by scientists. I tended to believe the scientists.

In 1985, I did my first bicycle trip across the state. I had a little radio with me that brought the news of an actor named, Rock Hudson who was discovered to have AIDS.

I felt distant from the whole situation biking across the state and having never even heard of Rock Hudson till then.

I thought one thing that set me apart from most other gay people is that I seldom watch movies and don't even know who the famous actors are.

The first person, I knew personally, to have AIDS was named Scott Lennon. I didn't know him real well, but we had gone to a few events together. He was in my wide circle of friends.

The first I learned of his AIDS diagnosis was seeing his name in the newspaper.

Scott used the last years of his life in public service and education. He spoke out about AIDS awareness at various schools, churches and so forth.

Bellingham got it's first AIDS organization sometime in the late 1980s, or early 1990s. In it's early years, it was called Evergreen Aids Support Services.

World AIDS Day started being celebrated with candle light walks through downtown on usually bleak, dark and blustery days. That's December for you.

Walks usually ended at Unitarian Church with a service and social hour.

One year the service was at Assumption Catholic Church.

Part of the AIDS Quilt was brought to Bellingham and displayed on the floor of Carver Gym at WWU one year.

In the later 1990s, there was an AIDS prevention program called Friend To Friend. Bellingham was one of the cities that this program was rolled out to.

Friend to Friend was quite creative with a lot of grassroots events designed to enhance the quality of life in community. This was seen as a strategy for prevention and safe sex education.

There were quite a few gatherings, potlucks, discussion groups and other social events. A space for community, which often seems lacking in mainstream society.

Funding eventually ran out for the Friend to Friend program, but there continues to be quite a bit of interest in knitting together healthy community ties clear to this day.

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