Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a column about a young man named Joey who was spending his last Christmas Eve dying from AIDS in a dreary Baltimore apartment while the whole wide world seemed indifferent.
I thought of him this week as researchers in California declared a patient appears to have been cured of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, for only the second time since the horror began.
Maybe this is a glimpse into the very beginning of the end of the plague.
We’re 12 years since the first patient was cured, followed by 12 years of frustration and failure to duplicate any success. But now these scientists are proclaiming a second victory and expressing optimism that a cure is possible.
It won’t happen tomorrow. But we’ve come away from that darkness of 25 years ago when each diagnosis of the virus seemed a certain death sentence.
When I think back to Joey, what I remember is not just a young man, 42, dying ahead of his time, but the intense loneliness he talked about. No friends were calling, and no family came near. On this night, people were dressing for holiday parties, and Joey’s big plan for the evening was listening to a midnight mass over some radio station.
But on this Christmas Eve, he asked, where was God?
He’d been fighting the virus for five years. He’d done all the medically suggested procedures. Nothing had worked.
Now, as we wait for the scientists to perfect their labors, something beyond medical advance has taken place. The culture has changed dramatically. Back then, many called homosexuality a matter of malignant choice. That night, Joey talked about being punished for being bad.
“Not that I did anything bad,” he said, “but that being gay is bad. Like I had some control over it, you know? We were told our entire lives that it was so bad that we were going to pay for it. And now, right on schedule, here’s the punishment.”
At least most of us have gotten past that kind of thinking.
Joey came from a generation where the straight young men, bolstering their own sexual insecurities, made mincing gestures, little bends of the wrist and lisping noises, when talking about gay men. It was a defense against the dangers of feeling different.
In Joey’s young adult years, though, things began to change. Gay and lesbian men and women were declaring themselves unashamed. He felt a weight come off his chest.
But he paired off with more men than he wanted to count. Sex was part of it, but mostly there was a flood of overdue validation, that he could be loved on his own terms and not society’s.
“And now this,” he said. A little artificial Christmas tree stood nearby.
“I need to believe that God still looks at me kindly,” he said, “and that I’m not dying out of some sense of punishment for a crime I didn’t commit.”
Hopefully, we’ve gotten past such thinking 25 years later. And hopefully, too, we’ve gotten dramatically closer to the end of the plague itself.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.