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LeftOut: Contributing Factors

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Barack has his vote, but Hillary has his heart.

The 2008 Democratic Primary is the most contentious nomination battle that I personally have ever witnessed. Candidate loyalty runs deep, and at times the differences between opposing camps have erupted into bitter rhetoric. My personal support is behind Senator Obama, but I have deeply felt admiration for Senator Clinton. Her list of accomplishments from four decades of public service is long and impressive. However, when I think fondly of Hillary Clinton, it’s always the issue of AIDS that first comes to my mind.

I’ve remained HIV-negative all these years—which I attribute to luck, and not intelligence or virtue. I deal with a high level of survivor guilt, but I know that’s minimal to deal with compared to the virus itself.

Ironically, HIV is the real reason why I have such a strong sense of loyalty to the Clintons. My memories of living life openly as a gay man for the past four decades are permeated with AIDS.

I recently gave a copy of the Houston Chronicle to GCAM (Gulf Coast Archive and Musuem) that I saved for years—it has an article in it about “the new gay cancer.” This was the first I’d ever heard of it. At the time it was called GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). The first theory was that this new disease was caused by poppers. I read that statement, and the newspaper tumbled from my grip.

Information was slow to arrive to the general public, but I latched on to every bit that I could find. Years before it became common knowledge that AIDS first incubated in Zaire, as a result of human beings infected with the simian version of AIDS, I was aware of the role that “green monkeys” played (biting humans who were also scavenging trash piles). I can still hear the laughter from people who thought I was nuts talking about green monkeys. Unfortunately, the laughter of most of those people has been stilled for eternity.

I was able to stay on the sidelines until the late ’80s, and by then, it was all around me—and I could no longer ignore it. In early 1991, my late partner Michael Cole was diagnosed with AIDS. In late 1991, his younger brother Roger Cole died of AIDS. Michael finally succumbed on January 6, 1993 (the same day that ballet superstar Rudoph Nureyev died).

I remember well the total silence from the Reagans and the Reagan administration. Their attitude was easy to discern—gay men had no reason to complain, because their sins had brought this upon them.

The Bushes were no better. Barbara never visited an AIDS ward, never wore a red ribbon, never spoke up. She did attend the funeral of Ryan White.   But by that time, it was already clear that heterosexuals with AIDS were “innocent victims.”

After 12 years of silence and neglect, along came the Clinton/Gores. Tipper read names at the unfolding of the Quilt in DC.   Hillary turned off the White House lights on World AIDS Day. Bill and Hillary rose at dawn to visit the Quilt display on the Mall in DC. The Clinton/Gores made speeches, attended workshops, wore ribbons, you name it. They were there for us.

Michael was in Casa, an AIDS hospice, in November 1992. But he was determined to cast his vote for Bill Clinton. Late one afternoon, I took him to vote at the downtown early voting location. I fully expected people to give us cruel looks—it was obvious by then that Michael was very, very sick. Instead, it was like the parting of the Red Sea—the crowd moved aside and indicated to us that they wanted him to go ahead and go to the head of the line.  

Bill Clinton was elected. But Michael missed the inauguration by two weeks. The grief was deep and raw that day, and the tears flowed when Maya Angelou read her poem for the event, and mentioned gays. Finally, the silence had ended. (And with it, the noise of our detractors rose to a crescendo.)

It’s true Bill dragged his feet. He promised a Manhattan Project and instead gave us a postage stamp. I remember the ActUp posters with his face and a Pinnochio nose. But at least he tried. And once he got used to it, he sat and listened and quieted the booing crowd when demonstrators invaded his public meetings and screamed at him about his lack of action.

The hatred for the Bushes was so intense that when they returned to Houston, they withdrew their names as honorary chairs of a local AIDS fundraiser, because activists protested so loudly.

Is this a reason to support Hillary’s run for the Oval Office? I’m sure that some would dismiss my loyalty as utter foolishness, arguing that wearing a red ribbon has little to do with fixing the economy. But we each have our own souls to answer to, and my soul tends to be a grateful one toward people who reach out to those who are clearly the underdogs and who have little support from others.

In the same vein, I will be deeply saddened when the tragic day comes that Elizabeth Taylor is taken from this world. And I can say the same for actress Judith Light and two of our past Miss Americas (Leanza Cornett 1993 and Kate Shindle 1998) who took up the cause of championing AIDS awareness.       

When Princess Diana died, all I could think of was the pictures of her shaking hands with an AIDS patient—for which she had purposely removed her “royal gloves” (something that British royalty just did not do back then). To me, it’s those people who go the extra steps, and who take on the wrath of the mainstream, that are the real heroes in life.

Did all these people really care? I’ve been told before that Liz and Judith just wanted to further their careers. That Liz was already old and fat and needed a new thing to tantalize the public with. That the Clinton/Gores were just pimping for votes. That Diana nursed her self-esteem problems by championing society’s casteoffs. Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but I’m glad my soul isn’t in such bad shape that it can no longer believe that good still exists in people.

Even Barack Obama, in his Audacity book, mentions this cynicism. How, he ponders, can people really tell anymore, if a candidate/politician really cares about issues—or if they are just concerned about the sound bites and the photo ops? I guess it all comes back to being a personal thing. I have my own heroes, and despite the fact that it hurts when others deride them, I continue to keep that sense of hope alive inside me that good people still exist, that they still care, and that the disadvantaged can still count on them when they are needed the most.

Brandon Wolf founded the online group Houston Activist Network (Han-Net), which is now LoneStarActivists.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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