Today is World AIDS Day. Now, in December 2011, we are 30 years from the first reports of AIDS in the United States, and, while we do not yet have a cure, it is remarkable to see the progress that has been made.
Medically, we have developed ways to keep HIV-positive people alive for almost an entire normal life span. We now know how the disease is transmitted. Media campaigns everywhere tell us how to protect ourselves from contracting the virus.
In addition, AIDS activists have had a greater impact on the federal drug approval process than any other disease lobby and have successfully had some experimental drugs made available for those who need them. (The fight for universal treatment access, of course, still continues — particularly in this harsh economic climate when foreign aid is less of a priority — but there have been successes.)
Some Yale students, like David Carel ’13 and the rest of the Student Global Health and AIDS Coalition, have been a part of that success. But our community has also been directly affected by the disease — a reality that many of us don’t even consider.
“AIDS happens in Africa, in those developing countries far from here,” people often think. “Only drug addicts and really promiscuous gay men get AIDS these days.”
But estimates put the number of Yale alumni, staff and faculty members who have died as a result of the disease since the epidemic began 30 years ago in the hundreds — and this group includes men and women, gay and straight, who contracted the virus in various ways.
An estimated 20 undergraduate and graduate students at Yale just last year were HIV-positive, according to a December 2010 News interview with Chief of Student Health James Perlotto. Those students are not likely to die in the foreseeable future, but they will have to take a cocktail of drugs every day for the rest of their lives.
The fact is that no matter what school you go to, how smart you are, or how much money you have, it still only takes one shared needle or one incident of unprotected sex for a person to become HIV-positive.
We, as Yalies, are not immune.
In the early 1980s, when no one really knew how the disease was contracted or how to protect themselves, many Yale graduates and professors unknowingly contracted HIV.
Paul Monette ’67 was a well-known and respected writer whose memoir of his partner’s fight and eventual death from AIDS, “Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir,” gained critical acclaim. Monette was a member of Jonathan Edwards College, served as the editor of a number of Yale literary publications and, in his senior year, was the Class Poet and a member of Elihu. He had a long-term partner and a home in Los Angeles. But his success was cut short when he died of AIDS-related complications in 1995 at the age of 49.
John Boswell was a prominent scholar whose work on homosexuality and religion helped break down the taboo around the serious study of homosexuality in academia. A professor at Yale from 1975 until his death in 1994, he inspired and taught some of today’s leaders in the field and his work continues to be studied today. He died at the age of 47.
In his course “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History,” history professor George Chauncey talks about some of the other alumni who lost their lives to AIDS — those who never had the chance to make it in their chosen fields. Among them, he describes dancers, biologists, actors and writers — all who died within 10 or 15 years of graduation.
Imagine what they could have created, discovered, written. Imagine the experiences they could have had, the passions they could have explored, the families they could have built.
AIDS is not a distant memory of a past tragedy. It is here in the United States, in Connecticut and at Yale, and we are not immune. Today we have drug cocktails that will keep most people alive for a long time, but they aren’t a cure. This World AIDS Day, remember the people we have lost and honor their memory by keeping yourself safe and healthy.
They didn’t have the medical knowledge to do so. Today, we have no excuse.
Ilana Seager is a senior in Timothy Dwight College and a former Science & Technology editor of the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.