Saturday, 17 December 2011

AIDS Crisis

It was in the late 1970s or early 1980s when gay men started to become ill from a 'mysterious virus' and all sorts of rumors sprang up. Soon, though, it was determined that the virus was HIV. For years the source of that virus remained a mystery and all sorts of 'conspiracy theories' became common - not the least of which was that German scientists during the Nazi era had created it in order to 'wipe out' undesirables like Black people.

Yes, it developed first in Africa and was spread by biting insects and did affect the native African population more than any other - but it was NOT a 'conspiracy' but a new viral strain.

In North America and Europe it did impact the Gay male communities more than any other - but was not confined to that demographic despite the claims of religious fundamentalists!

The virus soon had an impact upon the Gay Community in Vancouver as well as in many other North American communities. By coincidence, the man who was named as 'Patient Zero' by researchers into the spread of the virus, was living in Vancouver and I knew him.

Gaetan was a very handsome French-Canadian fellow from Quebec City whose occupation was as an Air Canada flight attendant. He was 'Gay' and he adored sex and was quite promiscuous. Also, having frequent 'lay overs' in many cities he met and interacted with many other men.

Gaetan did resent being singled out - possibly unfairly - as 'The Source' but, I guess, the ball had to stop somewhere. The last time that I saw him was when he asked me to have a cup of coffee with him. As I have said, he was very handsome but, by that time, his face was becoming disfigured by ugly blotches (Karposi Sarcoma).

There are a number of hospitals in Vancouver - as there are in most cities - but the one that became 'Aids Central' was St Paul's on Burrard Street at the edge of the West End where lived the highest concentration of LGBT people.

I came to be in there visiting on many afternoons - I saw congregants, friends and strangers. It was sad and tough.

Also, I was called upon to preside at a number of funerals for those who did not survive - and to attend more for friends who were of other faiths. I salute all of them.

The HIV/AIDS patients were congregated on one floor of that hospital with the nurses' station in the middle. One afternoon I called into the room of the youngest patient - he was 18 or so - where the mother, aunt and 'AIDS buddy' (Gay men volunteered - and were trained - as buddies for HIV-positive people) were sitting by the bedside. That 'AIDS Buddy' was a member of MCC-Vancouver and I knew him well.

Another friend of mine had been admitted as well and his room was across the way. I went over there to see Ted for a few minutes and then returned to the first room. When I entered the room the mother, aunt and AIDS buddy were no where in sight and the bed sheet had been pulled up over the body - the lad had passed away in the interim.

There were two men who were a couple and whom I knew socially. Both became HIV positive and one of them became ill and then died. Later I saw the survivor and chatted with him. Jan had been a patient in St Paul's too and Jeff told me that the nurses had commented to them how remarkable it was that all of the patients on that ward had a continuous stream of visitors - a phenomena not seen in wards where patients were suffering from cancer or other diseases.

One of the lads who attended MCC-Vancouver became ill and passed away. His family lived in Vancouver and looked after the funeral arrangements. They belonged to a fundamentalist congregation and their Pastor led the funeral service in a chapel in a funeral home. A number of us attended and were shocked by how irrelevant was the message from the Pastor. After the funeral two women from our church asked if we couldn't have another service more relevant to the deceased and to we, his friends? Normally I would not agree to that but I did this time. We needed to say our 'Good-byes' in a way that was relevant to those who knew him as he really was.

I had a gay friend who was a nurse at the Provincial Hospital - Woodlands - for mentally ill children. I had been in that hospital visiting - and in the counterpart here in Ontario - and I have a huge amount of respect for those who work in those places.

My friend owned his home and, one day, he had gone shopping. When he returned he found that his house had been broken into and that the burglars were still inside. He rushed in, was attacked, and was killed.

We had a number of mutual friends and one of them - his Executor - asked if I would conduct his Memorial Service? I agreed - although, there was one stipulation which I found difficult. He was not 'out' to his family so I was told not to make any reference to his sexual preference. That made me uncomfortable - and I came to a realization that his family did know.

One of the tabloids reported on the murder with the screaming headline "Murderers Splattered With AIDS Blood"! Give me a break!

There were identical twin brothers who were Gay and one of them had a magnificent singing voice (he had attended auditions for the Metropolitan Opera Company which were held in Seattle). The last time that I saw him was at an AIDS Benefit concert in Victoria. He looked ill but he sang magnificently the song from "Carousal" - "You'll Never Walk Alone". I don't think that there was a dry eye in the theater.

When I moved to Toronto in 1989 Gay men were still dieing in alarming numbers. Now there is a magnificent 'AIDS Memorial' in Cawthra Park on Church Street. On the Thursday evening of Pride Week there is a candlelight service in that park when the names of more people - all genders and all ages - are added to the memorial. Very beautiful and very moving.

I am adding two photos. The first is of the AIDS Memorial on Church Street as seen in daylight. The second is of the AIDS Vigil held on the Thursday evening of Pride week. 

Hundreds of people of all ages and every gender gathered together in memory. A very moving experience.

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