"What's wrong with Rock Hudson? He looks ill." Those words were uttered, more than once, by my parents and maternal grandmother (who was visiting us at the time) in our living room one night as we sat around the TV watching Rock Hudson and Linda Evans on Dynasty. "There's something wrong with him," they continued. It was the mid-1980s, and I'd never heard of Rock Hudson, let alone HIV or AIDS. All of that was about to change.
Today, on World AIDS Day, I remember that night from over thirty years ago very clearly, along with the news, not long after, that Hudson was suffering from something called Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It was something not often spoken of publicly. Our own president didn't even utter the terms "AIDS" until 1987, some two years after it had killed his friend Hudson. This would be the old Hollywood friend whom the Reagans ignored when he came to them for help. Rock Hudson's death shone a spotlight on the disease and, since then, there's been no turning back.
I remember the friends who have died from AIDS, who were lovely souls -- flawed, as we all are -- and who made an impact on those who knew them. There was Jesse, whom I met through my mom. He was an interesting fellow. Loved his dance music. Loved seeing people happy. Loved to do drag. We had some nice conversations at his apartment and at Chester Street dance bar. He's been gone now close to twenty years. There was Bret, who contracted HIV some time after we knew each other, and was even arrested for transmitting the disease to another. He committed suicide a few months following the arrest.
Of course, time has moved on, and a diagnosis of HIV is no longer a certain precursor to death because of AIDS. I know several people living very healthy lives, some of them for decades, while being HIV-positive. That doesn't mean it's something one should seek out, but at least it is now much more treatable than it was. Having been born in the '70s, and being a kid in the '80s, I missed the worst of the epidemic. Still, the stories are there. The survivors remember. And the world will never forget.