Some very personal thoughts on World AIDS Day

Sten Kuth

As every year since 1988, December 1st, 2021 is World AIDS Day. A day not only to commemorate the people we lost to this disease, but also to continue to raise awareness about HIV / AIDS, to educate, uncover false information and to continue to ensure that this disease is curable and eventually can be overcome. Even if we already have drugs available today that enable HIV-infected people to lead an almost normal life and we even have prophylaxis drugs, there is still no reliable therapy for a cure.

In addition, only 73% of mankind has access to these drugs and prophylactic therapy so far, almost a quarter of mankind still does not. Around 38 million people worldwide live with HIV today, in 2020 alone 680,000 people died from the consequences of AIDS, and since 1980, 36.3 million people have died from the consequences of AIDS since the epidemic began. Southern Africa is hardest hit. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the number of infections has risen sharply in recent years. The corona pandemic is throwing back measures against HIV / AIDS: Contact restrictions have hindered HIV tests and led to a sharp decline in diagnoses in many countries. The drug supply was also partially restricted or interrupted. (Source: German AIDS Help)

Since the beginning of the corona pandemic, I have been getting old memories and unprocessed trauma more and more often, because the current situation triggers me again and again. Why? Well, I have to go back a little further and would like to take the opportunity to tell a little bit from my personal biography.

I am probably lucky enough to have been born a few years late. I was born in 1969, July ’69, a short time after the Stonewall Riots in New York City. Our old address was 45 Christopher Street, now 45 Stonewall Place, a high-rise apartment building directly adjacent to the StoneWall Inn, the bar where the Stonewall riots began. But that’s another gay story.

My artist family was closely connected to the, then little bourgeois, area and its people. So it was nothing special that the first Gay Liberation Day was co planned in our apartment and that it was often open house for everyone. As an infant, I was always right in the middle of it, but of course I don’t remember anything, unfortunately in those years also not of Martha P Johnson, who is said to have babysat with me on a few evenings, as she told me later, and also not of the first gay Pride, then Gay Libration Day, which I was pushed in the stroller with. I don’t remember until I was kindergarten, when my mother took me to the first meeting of PFlag, the gay and lesbian parents’ organization in the Metropolitan Duane Methodist Church in the Village. I remember many different people and what has remained with me to this day, I remember growing up in an absolute normal with gays, lesbians, trans people, people of color and LatinX but also with my Jewish friends. For me it was a first and serious cultural shock when I was torn from this environment at the age of six and moved to Europe with my parents, where I was to grow up partly in Ibiza and later in a small town near Düsseldorf.

To cut it short, I had a great childhood and youth. Even if the diversity that I was used to in New York didn’t exist in the small town, I grew up there relatively openly. Even my coming out, which came more as a surprise to me than to my parents, was accepted by teachers and students or at most accepted with a just little surprise. I was very special for everyone anyway, but they liked me. This, too, could fill an entire chapter of a book, but that’s why it’s not supposed to be there today.

The time of my coming out coincided with the time when AIDS, the gay epidemic or gay cancer, as yellow press called it, was first reported in Germany. At home, I found out that my mother was worried about friends in New York but she had the biggest work to calm me down, because with what you read, I naturally thought that it would affect me too. I had just realized that I was gay and now I found out from the press that as a gay person this illness would punish me and would kill me. I don’t want anyone to feel that way.

Thanks to my mother’s contact in the USA, we always had the latest news and updates relatively quickly by mail, fax and telephone. My own being gay was only an issue with the terrible German Catholic relatives and other people who blaspheme in connection with AIDS. My aunt crossed herself when I left the room, like I was Satan. However, I have to say that, with the exception of this part of our family, I have never had any experience of discrimination based on my being gay wether in my family, the neighborhood or in school. Incredible but it is so. Maybe I just let it all bounce off me or didn’t even notice, because I grew up and raised so protected, open and liberal and learned self-confidence through dancing, although I still struggle with shyness to this day in private life.

I recommend to everyone who did not experience the early 80s to study the first years of the AIDS epidemic in Germany and the USA. The behavior of politicians, church officials even some scientists and the public was humiliating.

In 1985, when I was 16, I finally went to New York for 11 months on a student exchange and saw how unspeakably worse it was compared to Germany. I will never forget this eerie mood. At that time I was with my first friend, who came from New York and whom I met through my mother and grandmother during a visit in Paris. In love as we were back then, of course we were more concerned with ourselves and I only had my dancing in my head. I was too young to go to any clubs and Steven kept me very away from the gay scene. In addition to high school, I had a scholarship to a professional dance academy, mostly attended by LatinX and People of Color. More and more often, however, spots in the ballet hall remained empty, there were often pictures with candles on the windowsill, one day our teacher was missing. He was in the hospital. After a few weeks, my classmates and I fasted the courage and visited him, lied on the ward about our age. It was the first time I saw a person dying of AIDS. I didn’t speak for a week after that.

My host family, with whom I was only registered pro forma since I was living with my boyfriend, were friends of my parents who later lost their own son to AIDS in 1988. They supported me together with Steven, otherwise I would have ended up in the mental hospital for a short time, the shock was so intense, I was just 16!

Back in Germany, the topic was discussed for the first time in my high school. Fortunately, we had many young teachers who had just finished their legal clerkship and who, against the resistance of their old colleagues, brought topics such as safe sex with them to the class. To this day I have only very vague memories, after my time in New York I just wanted to go back very quickly, even though it was so depressing there. But in Germany everything seemed so banal and superficial to me and in New York I felt the inexhaustible solidarity within the community for the first time, despite the terrible suffering I saw there. It goes without saying that my parents understood this only too well, luckily we talked a lot back then and they helped me build up.

My friend Steven worked as a model and was in Europe a lot, so we saw often, I was busy with my dance training and my high school diploma and wanted to go back to New York as soon as possible. During all school holidays we flew to New York where Steven became part of the Act Up movement, he kept me away from doing it too because but he wanted to protect me as I was a minor and they were often arrested for their actions, I think he was scared of my mother’s thunderstorm. Mainly Act Up was about shaking up the public through shocking to radical demos and (art) actions. Until 1987, Ronald Reagan and his administration had hushed up the issue of AIDS. By then, 28,000 people had died of AIDS and more than 60,000 people were reported to be infected.

In 1989 the time had finally come. I left school. I received a scholarship, again at the Alwin Ailey School and at the Harlem dance institute, moved with Steven first to the Bronx and then to Harlem. We waited at the club kids’ parties at Limelight, I was a backup dancer at the Pyramid Club and Susan Bartsch Parties, was invited to parties at Keith Haring’s shortly before he died too. I became a friend of Willi Ninja, who even lived with us for a while, was adopted as a white foster child by the ballroom community and the House of Ninja. I was there everywhere, but always very protected by Steven and maybe a bit under the radar as a result. That probably saved me too.

We had such a creative time full of togetherness and diversity even though we had to fight for our existence. Because despite all the lightness, creativity and friendship, it was a tough life. I was in the fortunate position of getting some money from home, being sheltered in my monogamous partnership and being a white privileged young cis man, but our friends often had nothing. Many had to go hustling, lived on the streets, some disappeared without a trace, were found dead or, in the best of cases, were only regularly beaten and robbed. In particular, our LatinX and BIPoc friends were not counted in the white gay community and anyone who was trans or even trans and BIPoc was considered worthless. These experiences from back then also come back to me lately, when I see people of color and trans people in Berlin still being disliked or even despised by parts of the community. Maybe that’s why my best friends are often DragQueens to this day and I have better rapport with queer people than with just white, toxic masculine cis gay guys.

We had to watch more and more friends die. I don’t want to write all of this down here, because it would go beyond the scope of this blog, and I don’t think I’m ready to write down every detail yet. If you watch the series Pose on Netflix or Russell T. Davies’ great English mini series It’s A Sin, you can get a good impression of what our everyday life was like back then even when they are very Hollywood polished. Both series reproduce reality with terrifying accuracy. I find it difficult to watch both series myself because they trigger a lot.

When I went to Paris for my first cabaret show as a pro dancer in 1992, I had buried 96 friends and acquaintances as well as colleagues, if we could bury them at all and they were not buried in anonymous mass graves or their parents fetched them back to the province from which they once fled was. When I arrived in Paris I was 23 years old, 9 years after I came out, my being gay started straight away with AIDS. Finally I became a part of Act Up Paris untilI left Paris in 1993. If you are interested to get to know more about Act Up Paris just watch the movie 120 BPM.

Perhaps now it becomes clear why I wrote at the beginning that I was lucky to be born late. 3, 4 or 5 years later and I might not be alive anymore. For me it is still a miracle that I am still HIV negative, how it can be, I think it is just luck.

Here and in this context I am not yet ready to tell my entire story publicly, here and now it does not fit.
But why it is important to me to share this small excerpt from my biography with you will perhaps become clearer when I come back to the beginning of my text:

The fact that I have not got over it to this day is, how a society and its government was watching idly as countless young and talented people, in the prime of their lives, simply perished.

Today, in the wake of the corona pandemic, everything is being done to protect human lives, if they had reacted so quickly back then, many of my friends might still be alive today, but we were worthless. You can imagine why, from this perspective, corona deniers and vaccine opponents and conspiracy theorists not only make me angry and sad, but also tear open many old wounds. Again people deny one disease from which others perish miserably. Again, people refuse to take measures that protect other people because they themselves are of the opinion that they are not at risk. Again richer and more privileged people get better information, faster vaccinations and better health care.

I don’t need to visit an intensive care unit with COVID patients to know what unspeakable suffering is going on there, I know from the AIDS wards what it sounds like when people gasp for air and I know what it is like when people die miserably.

My request to you, my wish for World AIDS Day, even if we are in the middle of another terrible pandemic: please read up on HIV and AIDS, read up on history and do not forget the people we have lost to AIDS. For today’s generation, AIDS has lost its horror, but it is still there. As a community, we should keep this part of our history and the memory of our pioneers alive. And we must continue to ensure that people in less privileged countries also get the opportunities that we take for granted. But please also inform yourself about COVID and if you have not yet taken all measures that are currently available to us to protect us all, please do so. Get vaccinated, wear a mask, test yourself and keep the number of your contacts traceable.

Like every year on World Aids Day since 1988, I always take time off and, like every year for 33 years now, I light a small candle for each person I lost and try to remember their names and faces. It 156 this year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *