Last week someone showed me the first poll to indicate a narrow majority of Americans support gay marriage. For the past few months, I have been talking and thinking a lot about our perceptions of HIV/AIDS. I teach US History and cover the 1980s including HIV, gay liberation efforts and the Reagan administration's reluctance to discuss AIDS or fund research efforts. In class, I read an excerpt from ‘And the Band Played On’ and the kids consistently flip out because they (incorrectly) assume their government would have been highly interested in, y'know, trying to stop a dread, communicable disease. It is always heartening to me that these young people almost uniformly reject anti-gay policies and prejudices, even retroactively. They are the ones who will consistently support laws, initiatives and politicians who advocate marriage rights for everyone.
In discerning the base level meaning of marriage, I think it is clear that for many people, the institution of marriage provides license for two people to have sex. This poll reveals significant change in attitudes concerning gay marriage and I am wondering if part of the reason more straight people are willing to support the public sanction of gay sex via marriage has occurred because our collective fear of gay sex has diminished tremendously since the gay people profiled in ‘And the Band…’ were just about the only people who knew anything at all about AIDS.
When Magic Johnson announced he was HIV+, I thought there was a good chance that my generation (I was 17, in college and LOTS of us were sexually active) had a new JFK moment. I was totally wrong though (it's still Challenger). Instead, Magic is so healthy, active, rich and visible that I know some people have (temporarily?) forgotten he has HIV. That's a little scary actually. AIDS is now the leading killer of Black women between 25 and 34. The most horrifying elements of that statistic, for me, is that these women have still not been educated enough to know that they are a) susceptible to HIV, b) perfectly capable of preventing their infection in almost every case and c) consistently late to receiving diagnosis and attendant care.
Our increasingly cavalier attitude towards HIV is another reminder that we have an amazing level of privilege in the U.S. In so many countries, HIV almost always becomes AIDS and almost always equals a death sentence. Now, early detecting Americans are likely to stay healthy for a very long time. Some of them, like Magic, will always carry HIV but never develop AIDS. The transition in our country from a) AIDS=Death to b) HIV= chronic, massive health concern gives me increased hope that some of the fears our society has long harbored about gay sexuality will continue to fade. The likely repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is another step in that direction. (Baby steps to full equality, baby steps to full equality.)
While judicial decisions are critical stepping stones, it is ultimately the support of the American people that generates the permanent force of change. That change is occurring. Most people I suggest this to think I’m crazy but I believe that gay marriage will be legal in half the states by 2020. That's my hope and my prediction. We're on the way, people. Slowly but surely. We're on the way.