In 1981, I remember reading a one-column article buried inside the pages of the main section of the New York Times. It discussed a puzzling medical situation. Young gay men were being diagnosed with a form of cancer usually reserved for older people. Bruise-like spots of Karposi’s Sarcoma were appearing on their bodies. Death rapidly followed.
The article alarmed me. I remember picking up the phone and calling my good friend and neighbor Vincent to read him the story. Then I asked what between us was the obvious question: “Do you think this is what Tom has?”
Tom was a talented dancer, a young transplant from the Midwest who had moved to New York City to make it into the big time. Vincent, then an aspiring actor, was his friend,and I was Vincent’s neighbor, a single welfare mother living in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen who lived vicariously through the stories of their escapades. They really knew how to enjoy life!
But for months, Tom had been feeling out of sorts. And soon he was out of commission. He had been in and out of hospitals, and instead of sharing with me their latest adventure at clubs like Danceteria and the Ritz, Vincent was reporting back to me a series of serious setbacks in Tom’s health. Within months, Tom was dead. And now we know, Tom had contracted HIV and had died of AIDS.
In the early days of AIDS, it was seen as a “gay” disease, a condition relegated to “them,” a castaway group that was treated in a way that is so familiar to people of color. The reasoning was that if you were not gay, you shouldn’t be concerned.
Thirty years later, we know how wrong that thinking was.
I recently attended a reception hosted by CBS for the 2011 UNITY Global Fellows and their mentors. These are twelve budding journalists of color who were selected to cover the UN General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS. Their mentors are seasoned journalists from across the country who will help them produce multiplatform stories. The fellows are members of UNITY’s alliance associations — the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Native American Journalists Association — as well as the South Asian Journalists Association and the National Association of Black Journalists. UNITY partnered with the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) to make these fellowships possible.
Words could not express how proud I am that UNITY is part of this collaboration or my gratitude to the mentors who volunteered their time to share their skills with these young journalists.
I wish Tom were here to see this. He would have saluted the efforts with a high kick, I’m sure.