This is a long one. Get some tea.
Last night I learned that a young man from around my way had died. Over the past several weeks, he has been in the hospital largely unresponsive and plainly diminished. There was hope but little. There was discussion of his illness but little. He was just. Dying.
At 28, he will join a list of young men from around my way who. Just. Died. They were all, if not explicitly, homosexual. And this is how they all died. Of some unnamed failure of the body that is always explicitly not one of the common ones: cancer, diabetes, heart disease. The Hush tells all. It is AIDS.
We never say that; we might name the failure that AIDS has authored: pneumonia, meningitis; with the proper inflection even “he was sick” works.
“That boy’s funny” was as close as we got to naming homosexuality and for lesbians, they were “mannish” or “never had no man.” For the elders who were reputed to be homosexual, there was the nervous laugh coupled with a resolved “she always been, you know, like that.”
I grew up in a small town, and in an even more insular community in that small town where The Hush is not exactly hushed. I grew up in a not-so-distant past where homosexuality was not spoken but implied and understood in terms that would be considered passé in this liberal future of family friendly sitcoms with same sex partnering.
The Church that was and often is central to small towns and their smaller communities was mostly as hushed on the matter which is more than I might say for these days. No fire and brimstone you’re damned to hell sermons crossed the pulpit before which I and Chris, the deceased, sat every Sunday.
So when Mr. Williams’ son returned to our small community to die it was not spoken but understood that the hugs and handshakes divvied out after Sunday service were not for him. As we watched him grow so frail that he began bringing pillows to church to sit on, The Hush wasn’t really hushed—the hugging and handshaking that he was denied preached its sermon loud and clear.
Mr. Williams’ son and Chris marked a distinct pattern: the homosexual men graduated and promptly moved away from the area. Not necessarily far away. One guy, Jeff, moved a little south to the collection of coastal resort towns we simply call The Beach. The atmosphere there has long been more liberal in regards to coupling than anywhere else in our tiny state. Interracial couples and same sex couples were part of that landscape for as long as I remember.
On the other hand, a classmate lives in the house in which he grew up raising his daughter and granddaughter. The daughter’s mother, who The Hush claims has succumbed to mental illness, was a friend he experimented with while we were high school students. Yet even then, we all knew. Indeed, we were so convinced of what we knew that we joined him in denying the child was biologically his own, and blamed the claim on the child’s mother’s mental condition.
Those who do leave often return only to die. So is the case with the latest victim, Chris, who had pursued higher education and was getting on with his career in another state. AIDS had other plans. His return home last month was marked by a lengthy hospital stay that ended as I prepared this essay. As of last night, my mother reported that his brain activity had ceased.
When she told me, anger brewed inside me where it seemed grief should’ve simmered.
We called Chris the Cabbage Patch Boy because he looked like one of the dolls as a toddler. He was outgoing, smart, handsome, and musically gifted. Social media made clear once he moved away that he was also homosexual. That last trait should not have negated what he has to offer the world.
But it seems to do just that too many times in the narrow space I still, from two states away, call home. That’s where my anger came from. Whether we agree or disagree with the lifestyle or choice—whichever if either side of that coin you fall on; their sexuality y’all, the fact is that homosexuality should not be a death sentence. Increasingly, in that narrow space, that is exactly how it performs. I contend that it has much to do with The Hush as it reveals itself in our larger society.
I’ve worked with young people since I was a college student. Risky behaviors put them in a lot of thorny situations—STDs and HIV being two of them. We tell them to protect themselves because we know even if we wish we didn’t or don’t want it to be—that they will have multiple, often casual, sex partners. Sometimes they heed our pleas; a lot of times they don’t.
I’ve known plenty of sexually active and sexually careless heterosexual males and females but not yet have I known any to die this way in these numbers. Yet, supposedly this is why so many men who practice male on male sex die this way.
The easy excuses say they are participating in risky sexual behaviors. That they are less likely to protect themselves for reasons that usually point to The Hush—society’s failure to fully accept their lifestyle, choice; damnit, their sexuality. They are on the down-low because their sexuality is not accepted in whatever narrow space they identify as community; their personal conflict about their sexuality is quelled by intoxicants that make them less inhibited and in concert, more willing to take sexual risks.
Less likely than whom though? Other young people? Only two of the men I’ve known to die, out of the six I’ve known personally (and not counting the others I’ve known in passing), have been over the age of 30.
Some cursory internet research says my side-eye to the easy excuses is not unwarranted. In the USA, HIV and AIDS have affected young men (aged 13-24) who participate in male to male sexual contact more than any other group of people. In 2013, gay and bisexual men represented 65% of those diagnosed with HIV according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC’s 2012 Surveillance Report says this population represents, at 47%, almost half of all persons who died of AIDS since the onset of the epidemic. That of approximately 40,100 new HIV cases in the US, 28,500 of those individuals identify as MSM (men who have sex with men)—that’s 71%!
It’s very possible that because I’m not a part of the MSM community I am missing the PSAs; the message of these numbers which should be—if it’s not already—going out to MSM males as adamantly as it has been beat into my head. If another PSA tells me because I am a young+Black+female I belong to the fastest growing population of HIV/AIDS cases, I might just scream.
As troubling as it is hurtful is the PSA’s supposition which is predicated on The Hush and implies that these men, my brothers, are to blame for my “plight” (and their own) as I share them with their real life desires.
The CDC numbers corroborate The Hush with colorful infographics carefully illustrating “but other people get it too.”
Yes, they do.
In other parts of the world men who have sex with men, but do not necessarily identify as gay, are similarly disproportionately affected by HIV. Avert, an international AIDS charity, cites a 2008 report by UNAIDS that shows the primary HIV transmission route in Latin America is sex between men. The report continues that in Brazil, men who have sex with men accounted for 40% of all AIDS diagnoses among males between 2000 and 2005. Avert cites another study published by the International AIDS Society that shows that in some cities in Colombia, estimates of HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men range from 10% to 25%.
The bottom line is that these numbers are cause for dissection and concern and are only underscored by the very real grief of losing Chris, Mr. Williams’s son, Victor, of Delvin, their potentials quelled by an all too familiar Hush.
Here are the other notes The Hush misses: men that participate in male to male sexual contact are most affected by HIV/AIDS because in unprotected anal sex it is easy to make small tears or cuts in and around the rectum through which HIV can pass.
Too many times if two partners know they both are infected, they are more likely not to use condoms putting themselves at risk of cross-infection. In cross-infection, the already compromised immune system is being further attacked by both the HIV virus and possibly other diseases. Unable to fight, the immune system is now forced into a situation that is, in laymen’s language, fullblown AIDS.  By now, even the treatments that are keeping Magic Johnson alive and healthy fail.
The Hush won’t speak this part. I hadn’t heard it until I attempted to make sense of the CDC numbers in my own experiences with loss. And it made me mad that I didn’t know. That I’m convinced many don’t because of this Hush.
And finally finishing this I am able to give in to my grief; my mourning of friends and of the potential that will never be realized in them. There must be more than grief for them. We must speak The Truth in place of The Hush; need candor and compassion. Both or either can save lives.
 Bourne A., Dodds C., Keogh P., Weatherborn, P., Hammond, G. (2009). “Relative safety: Risks and unprotected anal intercourse among gay men diagnosed HIV.” Sigma Research.