May 19, 2013

May 19, 2013

Positive Politics

Welcome to another day in my life. Today is Sunday and I hope you are having a beary safe and great weekend. It is another busy weekend for Dab the AIDS Bear and me.

Thirteen years ago, Corey Johnson, then an 18-year-old high school student in Middleton, Mass., the son of a truck driver and a cafeteria worker, came out about his homosexuality, and it was no small thing. The captain of his football team, Mr. Johnson also wrestled and played lacrosse and baseball. Not long after his disclosure, he was asked to speak at the Millennium March for Equality in Washington. He became the subject of a column by Robert Lipsyte in The New York Times, which, to Mr. Johnson’s great surprise, ran on the paper’s front page on a Sunday. A certain celebrity quickly attended him.

Soon he began lecturing on sexual orientation at colleges, high schools, human rights groups, dinners and conferences.

I met Mr. Johnson one afternoon last week on the 12th anniversary of his move to New York, where he has pursued gay and community advocacy and made many friends, one of them former State Senator Thomas K. Duane, a particularly avuncular man who laughs robustly and cries easily. Under his tutelage, Mr. Johnson has learned a lot about politics and more about life, enough so that now, at 31, he is running for Mr. Duane’s former City Council seat.

Mr. Duane famously won the district that covers much of Manhattan’s West Side below 59th Street (currently represented by the mayoral candidate Christine C. Quinn) in 1991, during the height of the city’s AIDS panic, as one of the first openly H.I.V. positive political candidates in the country. Lending his friend his valuable endorsement, Mr. Duane told me he phoned Mr. Johnson not long ago to talk about the campaign, asking him first, “How are we going to handle your H.I.V. status? Have you told your mother?”

Mr. Johnson was diagnosed during a routine physical exam nine years ago, a revelation that shocked him, he said while seated across a desk from his mentor in Mr. Duane’s Midtown office.

In a sign of how much has changed over the past two decades, Mr. Johnson had not given much thought to his condition in the context of the Council race; in a sign of how little the emotional climate around the disease has altered, Mr. Johnson had not, as it happened, told his mother. “And I’m very, very, very close to my mother,” he said. (His father died of cancer last summer, a day before his paternal grandmother passed away.)

Similarly, Mr. Duane had forestalled telling his own family that he was H.I.V. positive until his nascent political career forced him to do it. “My mother said, ‘Don’t tell anybody,’ and I said, ‘I’m going to tell everybody,’ ” Mr. Duane recounted.

The conventional wisdom around H.I.V. and AIDS is that it is largely a disease of poverty, having migrated away from hubs of affluent gay life in New York to linger in places like central Brooklyn, the South Bronx and Harlem. This is both truth and obfuscation.

According to city statistics, the combined neighborhoods of Chelsea and Clinton have the highest per capita rate of new H.I.V. diagnoses in the city, and also the highest rate of people living with H.I.V. and AIDS. Mr. Johnson said that in his own Council district, which includes Chelsea, where he lives, he has watched the number of H.I.V. cases grow in recent years.

And yet the subject is largely removed not only from political discourse, but from conversation. “In the gay community, we’ve had a huge amount of success in marriage equality, in creating families, in the military, but AIDS and H.I.V. have fallen away,” Mr. Johnson said.

Living with H.I.V. in the modern age is not, as many might believe in the era of medical advancements, like living with a chronic cold. Many years and many funerals separate the experiences of Mr. Duane and his protégé, but both share the sense that the prejudices and judgments surrounding the illness have been far too slow to abate.

When Mr. Duane joined the Senate in the late ’90s, he said, there were people in Albany who would not shake his hand. He cries talking about a little boy upstate who was denied admission to his community pool because of his illness. “I’m the bearer of many people’s secrets about H.I.V.,” Mr. Duane said.

Mr. Johnson has many friends with H.I.V. who fear telling employers. “There’s still so much stigma and people don’t realize it,” he told me.

And there is still more to be done for those who do not share the advantages of white men living in Chelsea — budget increases for the city’s H.I.V./AIDS Services Administration, for example. Mr. Johnson is eager for a chance to have the fight.

“Someday I want to get beyond being that gay football captain,” Mr. Johnson told The Times 13 years ago. And so he has.

Hope you have a beary safe and great Sunday!

Until we meet again; here's wishing you health, hope, happiness and just enough.

big bear hug,

Daddy Dab