Something I've Noticed

STEPHANIE B. GIBSON

September 07, 1993|By STEPHANIE B. GIBSON

I recently had dinner with a woman I knew well when I lived in New York. We hadn't seen each other in almost two years -- not since my move to Baltimore. During the course of our dinner I asked about a mutual friend.

''Oh, Donald died,'' came the answer.

I didn't have to ask the cause of his death.

While I hadn't known Donald was sick, neither, it turned out, had any of his friends in New York. But this once healthy man in his early 30s had developed full-blown AIDS and died within the course of just a couple of months. No one was surprised by his death. Not because Donald had led a promiscuous lifestyle or because Donald was an IV drug user or because Donald was a homosexual, but because in New York City AIDS is a fact of everyday life.

When I lived in New York, I interacted daily with people who were HIV-positive, had ARC (Aids Related Complex) and AIDS. I did not work in a ''high-risk'' job, I was a college professor. My interactions were not a result of any attempt to connect myself with that part of the population which is suffering this terrible epidemic. In fact, there was not really a concept among my colleagues or my friends that there was a ''population'' of people with AIDS. Anyone, make that ANYONE, could develop the disease. And many of us did.

Between 1982, when my friend Vinnie died after a mysterious and swift bout with pneumonia, and 1991, when I left New York, I watched so many of my friends and acquaintances die that I am unable to recall the exact number any longer; I long ago stopped counting.

It was an absolutely normal circumstance to work side by side with people who were in and out of the hospital with, say, pneumocystic pneumonia. We all regularly visited friends who were receiving chemotherapy for lymphoma, taking large groups for parties to celebrate birthdays and other occasions. People regularly took time off to attend memorial services, making it up in flex time whenever they could. There was no stigma attached to being ill. People would come and go from work as they were able, the rest of us carried whatever of their load we could manage. Everything got done.

The significant aspect of all this was that everyone knew someone who was battling HIV in some form, and we all felt the battle was a common front. I didn't know anyone, and no one I knew knew anyone (think about it -- this is an enormous number of people) who didn't know someone who had AIDS. Let me put this another, less confusing way, everyone's life was profoundly effected by the epidemic.

When I moved to Baltimore in the summer of 1991 it was almost as though I had escaped from a war zone. I didn't realize until I got here how integrated into my consciousness the pall of AIDS death was. I distinctly remember waking up after I'd been here about six months and realizing I didn't know anyone who was dying. I still have the same type of job; I still interact with the same type of population. But I don't know anyone in Baltimore who has AIDS or even anyone who is HIV-positive. Or rather, if I do know people like this they haven't shared it with me.

Out there somewhere in Baltimore I know there are people who are HIV-positive and people who are dying of AIDS. But they are not made a part of the mainstream population. No one I work with talks about the epidemic, and most of the people I come in contact with do not know anyone whose life has been touched by AIDS.

What I experience here in Baltimore with regard to the AIDS epidemic is silence. No, make that SILENCE. And when people (( do talk about the epidemic, it is in a different voice from one with which I have been familiar.

It took me a long time to figure out what was different here. I knew that Baltimore was a smaller city so it made sense that the population with AIDS would be smaller, but that wasn't it. It was the unspoken worldview of almost everyone with whom I came in contact. AIDS was something that happened to ''them.'' Who ''they'' were wasn't even important -- ''they'' could have been gays, drug users, prostitutes or someone who fell into none of those categories. But whoever it was it wasn't ''us.''

Everyone was dutifully sorry about the terrible epidemic; everyone thought something should, nay must, be done. And people were even willing to help. Normal, compassionate people cared deeply about ''them.'' But the feeling remained and remains one of ''us'' and ''them'' -- people who are not HIV-positive and those who are.

This attitude can only hurt us all. While living in the AIDS war zone of New York was wearing and terrifying, it was at least an honest acknowledgment of the scope of the problem. As we all helped each other to live, die and mourn, we moved closer to understanding how to deal with the HIV in our midst. In an atmosphere where the problem is ''theirs,'' silence does indeed equal death.

Stephanie B. Gibson teaches communications at the University of Baltimore.

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