In 1983, a number of my patients were in the same special education class in Ottawa. Over time, since I visited this class so often, I came to know their teacher, a man my own age with a gift for teaching children with learning disabilities. We became good friends. He was gay, among the first men in Canada to be diagnosed with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Over the course of the next four years, I was a witness to the difficulties he experienced obtaining medical care.
When I think back on that time, I recall how much stigma played a role in the fact that he could not get proper assessment and treatment. He used to talk about how health care providers were clearly afraid they would be infected themselves, even when they had used universal precautions.
This gifted man lost his teaching position because of his illness and even his friends withdrew from him, fearful of contagion, or so he believed. Treatments were rudimentary at the time and so I had nothing to offer, as a doctor. As a friend, I offered my own company and that of my family.
I often see this man in my mind’s eye and, in this week every year, AIDS Awareness Week, he is always in my thoughts. He died in 1987, never realizing his full potential as an educator…except…
Except that he and his compatriots, the first cohort of men to die of AIDS in Canada, provided an education to the rest of us about homosexuality that blew the lid off hundreds of years of exclusion and hatred.
The wellbeing of their spouses and lovers, friends and community was threatened. Since neither the medical community nor the wider community rose unequivocally to the challenge of caring for them, they took care of themselves.
I grew up knowing individual men and women who “came out” but, once the AIDS epidemic took hold, a community “came out” and Canadian society is much better off for the vibrant gay activism among us since that time.
The other outcome of the emergence of the gay community has been advances in the knowledge and treatment of AIDS, a project they undertook and championed. Since the first death from AIDS in Canada in 1983, treatment has improved to the point that AIDS is often a chronic condition and those living with HIV-AIDS have a much improved quality of life. As well, mother to child transmission of HIV is virtually eliminated and the progression of HIV infection and AIDS among injection drug users has decreased significantly.
These are the legacies of these courageous men and those who loved them.