Not a Faceless Disease
Understanding, for the first time, what those four letters meant was shocking for me. It must have been in the late eighties, and I can't have been much older than 10 or 11. There were glossy reports in the mags about the "new plague". Pictures of People with the brown-red lesions of Kaposi Sarkoma all over their upper bodies and faces, as skinny as people from hunger zones in the horn of Africa. Most were men. Most were gay. I was shocked and scared but did I understand the full scale of this disease? No.
Over the years, as I got older, I started to understand that the HIV virus hit women as well. Women. Me? Could it affect me? Could some I know get it? Could I get it? I never thought it existed in my small home town of 70, 000 inhabitants on the outskirts of a large industrial region in western Germany. Not until I saw a documentary on TV on living with AIDS in small town Germany, filmed in my town, the person hidden behind glasses.
I started to grasp that AIDS hit very diverse people from lots of different backgrounds, but AIDS had no face for me. No real face, I mean. Only a face hidden in a shadow, or behind glasses, with a wig or a base cap and a weird, computerized voice. And without a name.
But it did get a name for me. And a face.
Thankfully I have yet to see a close friend die of AIDS, but I remember the first person that I actually knew who had AIDS -- he and his partner, who gave the HIV virus and AIDS a face for me -- very well. Every time I read those four letters, I think of him. And I see his face.
I met Wilton when I started when I hanging out at a local long run musical, a well known show, successful in various cities pretty much around the globe. I met lots of interesting people, started hanging out at the bar that the cast members used to hang out on Sunday nights, as Monday was the only day without a show. I enjoyed myself. I was 15 and really thoroughly enjoying myself in the company of a very diverse crowd. It was the first time that I met people who were openly queer ....it was great. It's a cliché that all male dancers are gay , I know, but most of them actually were, and while it was new to me, I thought it was pretty cool. Of course, I did, fall in love (or lust?) with a guy from the UK who simply didn't like girls the way I wanted to be liked. Bummer. But it was all a lot of fun.
A bunch of very attractive young people; no one cared whether you preferred girls or boys or whether you had no preference at all, long nights with lots of drinks and dancing and gossip and music.
The long run musical had started in the mid-eighties and a handful of former staff members had died of AIDS when I hung out there at the beginning of the 90s. The first person had died of AIDS in '88 or '89. Once a year, on the night before the annual cast change, the leaving bunch of people and the newbies would throw a huge charity night that usually filled all 1600 seats in the theatre. It was usually a night to show your real talents, for vocal performances that showed the true color of a singers voice much better than a part that you sing 6 to 8 times a week can. A night to dance your heart out, freed from the heavy costumes. A night to celebrate and remember those who had passed away in the past year and the profit of that nightly show usually went to a local AIDS charity. But above all, it was a night to party.
Wilton had been a cast member a while back and had lived in London since he had left the small unimportant town with the huge theatre. He was the partner of the Dance Captain, Glenn, and I saw him quite often, as he frequently visited from the other side of the channel. Glenn and Wilton were a couple in the true sense of the word, they were together (and had been for years), and you saw the connection between them when they were in a room together.
It was in the end of May 1993, when I hadn't seen Wilton in a few months: the night of the Charity Show, he turned up, wearing a white suit. He hardly managed to get out of the car and up the stairs to the back entrance. He looked frail. And I was really really shocked. Was that the same Wilton who had danced here, in this theatre just a year before?
During the entire show, he sat on one of the stairs leading to the stalls. From where I was sitting, a white dot in the darkness of the huge theatre. Glenn was the moderator for the evening and did a great job. The night was a success. I have a video of that night. Between bits of "Starmania" and "Fame", there is a long shot of Wilton sitting on that stairway, his elbows resting on his knees. Another shot on him while Glenn, his partner, sings a bit of "Body Electric", the final song of the night. It's not a pro video, the pictures aren't super sharp, but there is Wilton, smiling. And looking sick, because he's so frail. What you can't see on the video is how sick he actually was.
The rumours started that night: Wilton was HIV positive.
No one dared to ask though. Neither I nor any of my closer friends knew Wilton nor Glenn well enough. We "knew" them and liked them but were really only casual acquaintances. Not cast members. We hoped to be part of the crowd - but were we, actually? Today, I am not quite sure. The line between "fan/wannabe-groupie/chick hanging around" and "truly being part of the crowd" is a big one. And neither my friends nor I had passed it.
So the rumours were there..."Did you see....?" "How frail....?" "How long it took to get up the stairs....?"
What no one dared to utter was: "Is it really true? And if it is, what does that mean for him? ...and for Glenn?"
To cut things short - the rumours were true. Truer than we thought, as Wilton was not only HIV positive, but actually in the last stages of AIDS. We saw little of Glenn in the coming months. And nothing of Wilton. He died at home in England.
Hearing of his death was a shock.
I started to really understand: HIV and AIDS were real. People die from them - every day. It's not just on TV shows (where there are a) usually only HIV scares and everyone ends up being okay in the end or b) people die from something else or c) they get a miracle cure from some south American country) or in those horrible Safer Sex ads on TV.
In May 1994, a year after that night when he had sat on the stairs, the Cast Charity Night was in his honour. No Wilton. No white dot on the stairs in the darkness of the theatre that time. This young, talented, active, fit human being had died. Ceased to exist apart from his spirit. He had been here a year before. Danced on that stage two years before. And that year, people were singing in his honour. It was very hard to handle.
AIDS, HIV, got a face for me. If I think of AIDS, I see Wilton, in that white suit, on the stairway. I see the first person that I actually *knew* who died from AIDS.
Glenn was HIV positive as well - he was pretty open about it, I guess it was his way of dealing with the loss of Wilton. He, too, died, way before his year, about 2 years after Wilton's death. Didn't hear much about him during those two years - I lost touch with the people at the theatre, as the only real friend I had had there had left the company and returned to the US and I had also moved to another town.
Early one Thusday or Friday morning in 1996, I read about Glenn's death. I received my usual theatre magazine in the mail, opened a page at random, and it happened to be the page of Glenn's death notice; an entire page with a photo and a great text written by some people from the company.
I talked about it with my friend, who -- working with Glenn every day -- had known him pretty well. He told me that Glenn and Wilton had both gotten infected in the mid-80's, back when there was little detailed info out on how HIV was transmitted, when there were still lots of guesses around how you could prevent getting it, when in Britain (where both of them lived), the basic Safer Sex Rule was "Don't screw Americans".
These days, we thankfully know how we can protect our partners and ourselves from HIV and all other STIs. There are lots of different condoms on the market, a zillion different sizes, an uncountable number of different lubes to make everything run smoothly, there are dental dams (even flavoured ones!), and getting tested for STIs is easy, easily accessible and you get the results quickly.
We have knowledge. And yes, that often used saying is true - knowledge is indeed power.
We know now how HIV is transmitted, we know now that we simply always have to practice Safer Sex. No matter whether we're male or female or transgender or queer or straight or undecided. HIV is a virus: it doesn't ask who you are and whether you prefer sex with women or men or whether you live in a certain belief system or not, whether you're married or not. Anyone can get it. It has lots of faces.
For me, AIDS still has, and probably will always have, Wilton's face. However, that never made me believe (not for a single second) that he got it because he was gay. He didn't get HIV because some higher power wanted to punish him for his sexual identity. He got infected with the virus because he had unsafe sex at a time when he probably simply didn't know how to protect himself and his partner. He was in love or lust and probably felt invincible, which is something that happens to people of all genders and all orientations. All the time. Especially when you're young.
Lately, I've been getting the impression that more and more people think that HIV/AIDS isn't that bad anymore. Or a threat to them. Maybe it's because these days, you can get your virus load down to an undetectable level thanks to the Combo-therapy, because there is almost no Kaposi Sarcoma anymore, because people live longer. Don't get me wrong, I am not condemning the new therapies which have increased the quality of life for people living with AIDS, but I think it gives some people a false sense of security in that HIV is "just another disease". I sincerely hope it will be one day - controllable like diabetes or haemophilia, a serious but not life threatening disease...but I fear we're still years away from this.
Today, despite research and new drugs and therapies, HIV is just as dangerous as in the eighties. If you have any form of unprotected sex, you put yourself in danger of contracting HIV, and lots of other STIs that aren't much friendlier. No one is invincible. Even if you feel like you are, in the heat of the moment.
Sometimes I hear people say "My partner and I, we don't need Safer Sex, we trust each other and we love each other. If I suggest using condoms, what will my partner think? That I am dirty or sick?" That really makes me sad. No one with HIV is dirty, and no one is protected from HIV by love, either, if and when love is even an issue.
What better way is there to show a partner that you really care for them as to only have safer sex with them, to show that you care for their life, body, mind, heart and health by practising Safer Sex?
In my humble opinion, there is none.