Saturday, May 2, 2009

Stop AIDS Chicago


Used to be, on a Saturday night, I was only home if I had work to do. If not, I'd be out. And, in the mid-1990s in Chicago, "out" for me had multiple associations. At the same time as I was finding my way in the literary world (see Fish Stories post here), I was also volunteering to help in another community within the city: the community of those at risk for HIV/AIDS. Although I no longer remember how I first heard of the organization, nor do I recall the details of my initial contact with them, I had decided to donate time and effort to STOP AIDS Chicago. The "how" is now blurry, but still the "why" resonates. I was in early high school the first time I heard the acronym AIDS in a health class and learned what it stood for; that was in the mid-1980s, and although no one was yet talking about an epidemic (at least, not to high school students), still I think we sensed something ominous. At the time, I was in a dance-intense program with others hoping to turn professional out of high school. We were all just kids, but we were precocious many of us, and creative, and generally predisposed to have sympathy for anyone defining (or struggling to define) himself as homosexual. (I say "himself" because, there and then, no one ever talked about lesbians, so really it was just a male issue in our minds, however erroneous.) Of course, HIV/AIDS is not just an issue in the homosexual population—that is a well acknowledged truth now; hopefully an acknowledgment that saves some lives—but it became most serious there, and that community was the primary target of the outreach programs of STOP AIDS Chicago. I came to the organization also because I had known at least one person who died of complications from AIDS (see post: Grendel), and I felt that this person's memory deserved some action. As a result, I found myself in a classroom at the organization's office, sitting through volunteer outreach training and brainstorming slang for sexual organs and practices. Everything we came up with as a group would get written on a blackboard (or equivalent). We'd go term by term, and although I had by then a rather extensive vocabulary of smutty slang, still there were plenty of things I'd never heard before. I mean, who knew a pocketbook was ever anything other than a place to stash your wallet and keys? The point was that, as outreach volunteers, we would be interacting with people of different cultures, races, economic backgrounds; we'd be talking to them about safe sex practices, but how could we have this conversation if we didn't speak the same language? In addition to outreach, I worked as a staff writer for MOMENTUM, the volunteer newsletter. I covered "gay-friendly" churches, medical developments for treatment of HIV/AIDS, and a fantastic exhibition on the subject at the Museum of Science and Industry. But mostly, now, I remember outreach. Although I was a straight woman, I was sent into many exclusively male gay bars, armed with safe-sex quizzes, detailed information, and condoms. I was not allowed in bathhouses, of course, but the bars were fine. One I often went to had a country-western theme to it, and even that was new to me. You might wonder if I was made to feel uncomfortable, but really, almost every single man or couple I talked to thought it was great that I was there. They got a kick out it, and no one ever suggested I had no place in the bar. The men took the quizzes, invariably got at least one answer wrong and therefore learned something with the right answer, and I left them with protection in case they were "getting lucky" that night. Eventually, I became enough of a fixture at STOP AIDS Chicago that I ended up on their float in the Pride Parade one year. Television crews were there, and I remember wondering what would happen if I were in one of their clips, and if I were, then what would happen if anyone from my workplace saw me on that float? The assumptions would be obvious. Actually, there was one man I worked with who was gay (more or less openly) and another one or two I suspected were gay but not "out" about it. My coworker was the kind of person who'd jokingly give directions by saying "continue gaily forward" instead of "go straight"; he was in a committed relationship and although I've lost touch, I would not be at all surprised to learn that they are still together. Now, things are different. It's Saturday night, and I'm always home it seems. I don't go out often. Also, although I still have several gay friends (now mostly women), there are no longer any people in my daily life for whom "out" is, or ever was, a loaded word. Now it's just me, with my six-year-old son sleeping in the next room. I wonder sometimes what he'll think when he hears, someday, about my volunteer life with STOP AIDS Chicago. Will he be incredulous, unwilling to believe that his mom would have candid sex talks with strangers in gay bars? Maybe. Still, I will have safe-sex talks with him, when the time is right. I plan on educating him about HIV/AIDS. And also, he will know that I will love and support him no matter who he chooses to love in his life. So, maybe I don't go out to bars anymore, but then again, maybe the outreach I have to do in coming years is just as intense, even more important—in my own house, to my son, I have more influence than I ever may have had as a volunteer with my clipboard and condoms, which I will not be distributing freely but which I nonetheless hope will be familiar and accepted by a boy who'll have his own safety in his hands one day.

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