The Morning After The Cure

It's too early to imagine the end of AIDS, scientists warn. But here in San Francisco's Castro District, one of the world's most famous homosexual addresses, there are rumors of optimism. And a lingering sadness.This year's International AIDS Conference, held recently in Vancouver, concluded with something more than official expressions of pessimism. In the Castro, everyone, it seems, knows someone who is responding well to new medical treatment. Everyone has a friend with AIDS who, only a few weeks ago, had a low blood-cell count, and now has gained twenty pounds.AIDS is not a homosexual diseases, of course. Nor only a male disease. But in America, the most public face of AIDS -- a disproportionate number of its victims and its most furious antagonists -- have been homosexuals. The Castro District has known death intimately, as a neighbor, since the early 1980s. There is a special poignancy here to something as ordinary as a FOR SALE sign on an empty house.I have often heard friends, infected by the virus, talk about waking up mornings, opening their eyes, for an instant hoping that it is all a terrible dream. In the clarifying light of day, AIDS remains.Even if it were to disappear tomorrow, AIDS has forever changed homosexuality in America. For one thing, the stigma of AIDS has not driven homosexuals into the closet. Just the reverse. AIDS has made homosexuality less of a secret. Think of the Hollywood benefits against AIDS, the angry street demonstrations, the death of Rock Hudson.We homosexuals are supposed by many observers to have become less promiscuous during the age of AIDS. If that's true, perhaps it's a response to loneliness after so much death, more than a fear of infection.In either case, who would have guessed that the threat of AIDS would hasten the evolution of the gay household and force issues like "domestic partner" employment-benefits and gay marriages? Fifteen years after the AIDS epidemic, politicians and church leaders debate the propriety of gay marriages. National news media recently zoomed in to capture the happy exchange vows by lesbian and homosexual couples, in the presence of San Francisco mayor Willie Brown -- in the age of AIDS.The miracle is the human will. The mystery is the capacity of the living to resist tragedy. To endure. Come to the Castro on a weekday afternoon and see people who have held the dying in their arms shop for tonight's dinner.You hear from the young especially a despair. I've heard gay teenagers call themselves "pre-HIV," meaning it's only a matter of time. The bars, the clubs of the Castro are crowded every night. Perhaps it's like this during any war -- young men grown so accustomed to death that they can only be merry.Many have learned to be suspicious of optimism. The new treatments are giving us false hope, they say; the virus is only hiding, they fear. AIDS has taught us to be suspicious of the body's secrets. Not everyone with AIDS is responding to the new medicines, people say. Not everyone has money enough or medical treatment good enough. The roulette wheel spins as wildly as ever.And people keep dying of AIDS on the famous fifth floor, the AIDS ward at San Francisco General. My own cousin died there three months ago. No matter what day the cure is found, it will always be a day late for someone. The terrible war-time question persists: was your son the last to die on the battlefield?A man I know whose lover died of AIDS tells me that, of course, he is thrilled at the prospect of a cure, but the very prospect makes him think of his dead lover and others who have died. A cure separates, in a new way, the living from the dead.There is, in truth, no possible morning after AIDS. The plague has cut too deeply. In the morning after the AIDS epidemic, grief will persist, routine lives will persist, homosexual couples will eat breakfast, and people will wait for the bus to take them to work.

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