Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Celebrity President

When I was in my twenties one of the bars I liked to frequent had volunteers at the door offering to swab your mouth to give you an on-the-spot HIV test.  What a fantastic idea, I thought.  No more slinking into your doctor's office and having to admit you'd been a bad boy or a bad girl and needed a test to see what your punishment was going to be: death or survivor's guilt.  People could take charge of their health in a more accepting atmosphere.  

The results of a positive HIV test are no longer a death sentence with advances in the antiretroviral treatment available today.  We've progressed further with the actual tests now too: you can easily test yourself at home.  I like this quote from the New York Times article:

"The availability of an H.I.V. test as easy to use as a home-pregnancy kit is yet another step in the normalization of a disease that was once seen as a mark of shame and a death sentence."

I wonder why there was so much stigma attached to having HIV?  Perhaps the way it was reported in the media and not-talked about by our politicians had something to do with it.

Here's the May 11, 1982 New York Times report of the disease before there was even a name for it.  Even though the article states that it "has developed among some heterosexual women and bisexual and heterosexual men" and "researchers call it A.I.D., for acquired immunodeficiency disease, or GRID, for gay-related immunodeficiency" the author continues using the term GRID over A.I.D. throughout the rest of the report.  Why?  Perhaps for the same reason the author chose to use this quote toward the end of his piece, "Dr. Lawrence D. Mass, a New York City physician, said that 'gay people whose life style consists of anonymous sexual encounters are going to have to do some serious rethinking.'"

So heterosexual women and men need not think about transmission of the disease?  It's just a slutty gay problem.  That's how we want to end our report on this mysterious new disease?

People blame sexual promiscuity for spreading HIV, but judgment of such behavior has contributed to the epidemic too.  If we had less biased journalists reporting about it, and fewer doctors willing to insert their prejudices into the process of finding a cure, perhaps it wouldn't have taken thirty years for the FDA to approve a pill that can help prevent the disease in healthy uninfected people.  

But it wasn't just media bias and doctors looking for their fifteen minutes of fame that slowed down the process.  If we'd had a president who mentioned the disease more during his eight year administration, greater awareness, more education, more funding for research could have led to fewer deaths.  If only Elizabeth Taylor had been our celebrity president rather than Ronald Reagan.  People make fun of the celebrity-activist.  As the great Trey Parker once said: "George Bush doesn't know what's going on.  Michael Moore does not know what's going on.  And Alec Baldwin definitely does not know what's going on.  Basically, this shit is gigantically complicated."

And it's true.  But when Elizabeth Taylor  spoke openly about the epidemic, at least someone was talking about a problem The Great Communicator was not.  Because this shit is gigantically complicated.  And the more voices willing to discuss the problem, the more solutions are found.

Thinking about this, I was reminded of a button I saw at the mall when I was about fourteen, back when Elizabeth Taylor was first speaking about the epidemic.  The button had a picture of Albert Einstein on it, and it said, "Minds are like parachutes.  They only function when open."  So naturally I attributed this quote to Einstein.

In my quick internet search just now, I find the quote is attributed to Thomas R. Dewar, one of the sons in the family whisky business.

I don't know if it was the peddler of critical thinking or the peddler of booze who actually said it.  I don't really care either way.  I'm just glad it got said.