I had just started my first part time job busing tables at Red Lobster in the early 80s. I was excited to finally make my own money and satisfy my almost limitless teenage needs. Over those first few weeks, I learned the all so important trade of removing dirty dishes from tables, how to stay calm during the busiest of times, and how to remember all the names of the other staff.
While there were several gay employees on the wait staff, I remember one in particular. His name was Grant and at the time, there was a mysterious virus just starting to gain attention in the media as a potential global epidemic. The disease was so new it had yet to receive an official name.
Over a fairly short period of time I remember Grant’s appearance started to change. It was almost impossible to miss. He lost a considerable amount of weight, his face became sunken and his cheeks hollow, and he had several noticeable marks on his face. One thing I knew for sure was something was horribly wrong. Unfortunately, none of this escaped the notice of the other employees who started to put 2 and 2 together.
What I’ll never forget, even all these years later, is how harshly he was treated as a result of his condition and appearance. It was a much different time in the 80s and there was a lot of fear and misunderstanding surrounding the disease. Could you catch it by touching someone infected? By breathing the same air? By kissing? Eating with the same utensils?
Some of this fear was certainly understandable given the lack of information at the time but what I found to be unacceptable was the way so many others chose to humiliate and condemn him as a result. He went from being a human being to a shunned freak, a punching bag of sorts, not worthy of even the smallest amount of compassion or respect. I remember on numerous occasions his coworkers walking past him with a look of pure disgust and hate on their faces; the ugly side of humanity.
Eventually Grant stopped coming to work. I never knew if he got fired, just became too sick to show up and perform his job, or if he could no longer deal with the personal attacks directed at him on an almost daily basis.
Whatever the reason, shortly after he stopped showing up, I learned he had died. I don’t know if he died at home or in a hospital, but I remember thinking to myself, this man had a family; a mother and father had just lost a son and before he could finally rest in peace, removed from the pain and suffering, the humiliation and mocking, they had to watch helplessly as their son wasted away, no longer recognizable to those who knew him best.
Looking back, it still saddens and sickens me to remember how someone who obviously had to be scared beyond words and in a tremendous amount of physical and emotional pain could be treated so horribly, many times directly to his face. A face I still remember to this day.
Things have changed in some ways since he passed away. We now know much more about how the virus works in the body. We also know the risks associated with getting the virus.
But there are still those who feel the disease was and continues to be some form of punishment for gay men; never mind the fact that some of those infected picked up the disease from blood transfusions or even as babies from an infected mother.
This treatment of those who suffer, many times from the religious community or homophobes is incomprehensible. It strikes me as somewhat hypocritical, as well. Then again, many things the church and its members do strike me as hypocritical.
Luckily most of us, but sadly not all, do have compassion and understanding. We know that Grant, and all of those like him, didn’t choose to be gay any more than the rest of us choose the color of our eyes or the color of our skin. But there are still far too many who vehemently deny scientific facts and instead put their blind faith in a fictional book referring to a man in the sky.
But enough about them. They deserve no attention. The focus instead should be on the victims and their families and friends. And with each death, all 40 million of them, those around them suffered, too.