Denver AIDS epidemic survivors reflect on impact
June 5 is recognized as Long Term HIV Survivor Awareness Day. It was on that day, in 1981, that the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released their first official report on rare cases of lung infection in five young gay men in Los Angeles. This would become known as the start of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.
Almost 40 years later, a legacy of community activism, the advent of effective and less toxic antiretroviral therapy, and recent advances in prevention through pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) have taken HIV from a conviction. to death from a manageable chronic disease. Since people live long and healthy lives with HIV, they are doing something they never thought they could do during the height of the AIDS crisis: become senior citizens.
But for the generation of long-term survivors who came of age during the AIDS era in Denver, there is still a deep sense of trauma associated with seeing loved ones die when they have in a way. or some other survived it all.
“I used to be afraid to answer the phone,” says Donaciano Martínez, a soft-spoken man who is now 74, from his home in downtown Denver. Martínez arrived in Denver in 1975 from Colorado Springs, in time to witness the outbreak of the virus in communities of young and otherwise healthy gay men. “It was a dark time, and today it feels like we’ve been erased,” says Martínez. “The perception is that HIV is a thing of the past. “
Long-term survivors are generally defined as anyone diagnosed before 1996, the year when access to highly active antiretroviral therapy or HAART (a personalized combination of different drugs) became widely available. But some organizations define survivors as anyone who has been living with HIV for more than 10 years, even after 1996, which these powerful drugs have made possible. Being a survivor also means experiencing a brutal epidemic which, although mitigated by scientific advancements, remains ongoing.
According to AIDSVu, a project at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University that aims to make HIV-related data accessible, there were more than 10,000 people living with HIV in the Denver metro area in 2018, with around 300 new diagnoses each year. Frank England, who is open about his HIV status, shared that he and his partner Sam Brennan both lost their previous lovers to AIDS. When Brennan’s ex-partner Kevin Sheehan, who died in 2011 at the age of 57, was diagnosed in 1994, the only options were experimental drugs. While the treatment is more sophisticated today, drugs from England would cost over $ 4,000 a month if paid for out of pocket. The Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid have, since 2014, been key to addressing gaps in coverage and costs associated with HIV care and aging-related issues in general.
It is also important to remember the HIV negative partners, friends and health workers who provided support and services to those who died at the start of the epidemic. For decades, many have suffered from what researchers call AIDS survivor syndrome, a term that describes the specific physical, psychological and emotional symptoms experienced by those who have lived through the intense peak years of the epidemic. The grief is compounded for the survivors who never imagined they were burying their community just to stay alive themselves.
For many, it was funeral procession after funeral procession. “I lost 79 friends and lovers,” says Daniel Renner, now in his sixties. He had moved to Denver in the early 1990s from Seattle to act as dean of the education center at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “In some ways it seems like a long time ago, but the feeling is still there. I still wake up in the middle of the night remembering an entire lost generation.
For others, it was the regular anxiety of a blood test. “I used to use a fake name at Denver Health to get tested, and they allowed us to be anonymous,” says Brennan, reflecting on the concern he felt when testing for HIV. “They couldn’t give information over the phone, so I had to go back to get my results, which luckily were still negative, but I always wondered when I would find out there was something wrong with me.”
England remembers the heavy toll on her well-being. “My own brother didn’t want to share food with me,” England says. “If I dipped something in barbecue sauce, it wouldn’t touch it.”
Brennan and England want people to be educated about HIV and other primarily sexually transmitted infections (STIs). “STIs are on the rise in the United States,” says England, referring to recent data from the CDC which also aligns with findings published in the Journal of American Medicine Association, which found an increased risk of infections sexually transmitted infections in gay men taking PrEP. The two men stressed that while HIV is no longer the death penalty it once was, anyone who is sexually active needs to pay attention to their overall sexual health. “But no one has ever had an STI from the barbecue sauce,” England says.
Another gay man in his 60s, who asked to remain anonymous, said he wanted the younger generations to think about how AIDS has changed the texture of what it means to be a gay man. “I’m glad they didn’t have to go through what we went through,” he says. “I still want them to try to figure it out.”
Despite the loss, guilt and stigma they each endured, Martínez, Brennan, Renner and England have all found something that most seniors have: resilience. And while youth is fun, some things get better with age.
Renner looks back on his glory days, when youth was valued above all else, and remembers thinking about how “gloomy” life would be after 30 years. But after these turbulent decades, he sees the other side of the coin. “I learned the value of living a life, so that people who have been lost to AIDS crises do not die in vain,” he says.
With this value to Renner came another responsibility to those of his lost generation: “I can tell the stories that no one else can tell.”
(Read more: Colorado’s fight continues to end HIV)