Last summer on Facebook I read a post from someone who called AIDS his Vietnam.
I was startled.
For me, Vietnam was Vietnam. AIDS is AIDS. Almost nothing about them was the same. But I must confess both changed everything for me.
In 1966 I graduated from high school. At that point in my life I had traveled to or through at least 15 states plus three Canadian provinces. I had been riding a city bus independently for 11 years. I had lived in a Capuchin friary and saved my own money earned as a paper boy to pay for my first year of college. I knew I was gay and had been out to my family and a few friends for two years. But in the summer of 1966 I took the bus a bit further than I had before; I traveled to the local campus of the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee to take my entrance placement exams. So shaken was I by the experience – the first of my 64 cousins to go to college – that getting off the bus I accidentally stabbed myself in the thigh with one of my three number two pencils, the extra one that I brought along just in case.
That year there were over 250,000 US troops on the ground in Vietnam. We started air bombing Hanoi. I could not envision Vietnam. I could barely envision the Village of Shorewood just on the other side of campus. In the friary I grew to know myself as a pacifist. As the youngest of four in a family dominated by union workers and completely assimilated Jews, I knew debate and skepticism about power that brought sharp contrast to the notions of deferments, conscription, and wealth.
So, while I had an educational deferment because I was in school, I still registered as a conscientious objector. I also found a calculation of what percent of our tax dollars were going toward war and withheld that amount from my taxes, stating so in an attachment to my 1040 form. Ironically, I also joined ROTC. Don’t ask. Being in ROTC seemed the thing to do and was a recognition for me that all war is not wrong, but Vietnam was. This is how I think it must be for Israelis and Palestinians: defense is one thing, but apparently aimless killing for economic gain and political positioning is different.
I still say things like, “There is an election coming. Watch, we will enter this war so the incumbent looks good.”
Once I graduated and became a high school teacher, I was again deferred as an educator. But then the lottery was stepped up and all deferments were ended. I was drafted and failed the physical with a 4F because I am gay. And, though I had protested the war vigorously for four years, I didn’t want an exemption based on sexual orientation. I wanted one as an objector and I was willing to work instead of fight. But that decision was not mine to make.
I continued to protest and to stand up as a gay man who was an activist for social justice issues of race, gender, work, and peace.
Twelve years later, a scary disease was rocking the newly visible gay community in Milwaukee. I would again apply that activism to these new life-changing experiences. My husband Paul and I met just as the first cases of AIDS in Milwaukee were appearing in the news. Just like Vietnam, I felt that this battle was far away and disconnected from me. It was not a fight that I wanted to wage. I was willing to work, but I didn’t want to battle AIDS itself. So, Paul and I decided that we would bring AIDS into our lives — not the virus, but the people and the issues. We were buddies to the first couple of guys with the disease, caring for them both for more than a decade. I did my dissertation on depression in men with HIV, started an HIV mental health service, coordinated HIV services in a large hospital system, opened an HIV infectious disease clinic, and trained mental health workers and case managers.
A couple of years ago I was in Liverpool having lunch when I was introduced to a woman about five years my junior; she was certainly born in the 1950s. Within minutes she angrily asked me, “What took you so long?” She was referring to the slow entrance of the US into World War II, a war during which neither of us was alive. It almost immediately dawned on me that WWII was her Vietnam, her momentous world event that shaped everything.
Being with Paul for 31 years, starting Diverse and Resilient, moving to the suburbs, having dogs, planting gardens, starting my agency, leaving the pretense that was religion for me, curtailing my practice of individual psychotherapy, the ease with which I took care of my spouse during the roughest parts of MS – all of these track to HIV disease in my world. Activism, social engagement, strict adherence to voting, my need for a civil society – all connected to Vietnam. While I might have focused my work on poverty, racism, and anti-gay discrimination, how I do that was born in the protests of my Vietnams.
Community now calls me. When it first called at age 13, religious community offered respite from a challenging childhood. Later in an EST-like group, it called again, offering relief from anti-gay discrimination. I had hoped to find it in professional organizations, work, counseling. It struck me while writing this that I have known community best during Vietnam and through AIDS-related work. These opportunities to show ourselves, to assert our values, to express empathy, and to roll up our sleeves — these foster community.