The Morning After

September 9, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, Pacific News Service: Scientists warned it’s too early to imagine the end of AIDS, but here in San Francisco’s Castro District, one of the world’s most famous homosexual addresses, there are rumors of optimism, and the persistence of sorrow. This year’s International AIDS Conference held recently in Vancouver concluded with something more than official expressions of pessimism.

DR. PETER PIOT, United Nations AIDS Program: The new combinations of anti-retro viral drugs are holding out new hope.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Here in the Castro, everyone, it seems, knows someone who is responding well to new medical treatments. Everyone has a friend with AIDS who only a few weeks ago had a low blood cell count and now has gained twenty or thirty pounds. AIDS is not a homosexual disease, of course, nor only a male disease. But in America, the most public face of AIDS, a disproportionate number of its victims and its most furious antagonists have been homosexuals.

The Castro District has known death intimately as a neighbor since the early 1980’s. There is a special poignancy here to something as ordinary as a “For Sale” sign on an empty house. Curiously, even if it were to disappear tomorrow, AIDS has forever changed homosexuality in America. For one thing, the stigma of AIDS has not driven homosexuals into the closet, just the reserve. AIDS has made homosexuality less of a secret. Think of the Hollywood benefits against AIDS, the angry street demonstrations, the death of Rock Hudson.

We homosexuals are supposed by many observers to have grown less promiscuous during the age of AIDS. If that’s true, perhaps it’s a response to loneliness amidst so much death more than the fear of infection. In either case, who would have guessed that the threat of AIDS would hasten the evolution of the gay household and force issues like domestic partner employment benefits and gay marriages? Fifteen years after the AIDS epidemic, politicians and church leaders debate the propriety of gay marriage. Witness this happy exchange of vows by homosexual and lesbian couples in the presence of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown in the age of AIDS.

In the history of the world, AIDS is merely another in a long line of plagues. The miracle is the human will. The mystery is the capacity of the living to resist tragedy, to endure. Come to the Castro on a weekday afternoon and see people who have held the dying in their arms shop for tonight’s dinner.

You hear from the young especially a despair. I’ve heard gay teenagers call themselves “pre-HIV,” meaning it’s only a matter of time. The bars, the clubs of the Castro are crowded every night. Perhaps it’s like this during any war, young men growing so accustomed to death that they can only be merry. There are those here suspicious of optimism. Recent medical breakthroughs, they warn, will lead to false hope. The AIDS virus may only be hiding. AIDS has taught us, after all, to be wary of the body’s secrets.

And then there are those infected by the AIDS virus who seem not to respond to the new medical treatments, and there are those without money or sophisticated medical care who do not receive the new medicines. The roulette wheel spins as wildly as ever. And people keep dying of AIDS here on the famous fifth floor, the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital.

AIDS VICTIM: You know, I’m 46 years old. I want to live to be, huh, I want to live to see the year 2000. I want to sit on a rocking chair with someone.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: My own cousin died in this place three months ago. No matter what day the cure is found, it will always be a day late for someone. The terrible, wartime question persists: Was your son the last to die on the battlefield?

There is, in truth, no possible happy morning after AIDS. The plague has cut too deeply. And the morning after the AIDS epidemic, grief will persist, routine lives will persist, the man whose lover died of AIDS will still eat breakfast. And strangers will wait for the bus to take them to work.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.