In your face about AIDS

Apr 26, 2006 at 12:00 am

This column is in memory of Rodney Dildy, a very close friend who died from AIDS almost 10 years ago. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first recorded case of the disease in America, and I can't think of a better time to recall the life and death of someone who changed my ignorant and uninformed attitude about gays. I'd like to think I'm a better person today because of Rodney, but I know I still need a lot of work.

I'm not the only one.

I wish I knew the day, or even the week he died, but I don't. Several weeks before Rodney died he just disappeared. The first time I knew things were getting bad was when I called him at his Wall Street office and was told he wasn't working there anymore. I could swear I detected a tone of irritation, as if the guy didn't want to be bothered discussing Rodney. Then again maybe it was just a New York thing. His time was money, and I was emptying his wallet as we spoke. Besides, Rodney admitted that he had been a pain in the ass to his co-workers — on purpose — by forcing them to deal with a gay black man who was dying of an incurable disease. Rodney said they didn't like him much before AIDS, but once his work started suffering, and the reason became known, they took it as their cue to try shoving him out the door. This obnoxious black homo was taking space that could be occupied by a healthy, far less obnoxious — and perhaps less intelligent and streetwise — team player kinda guy.

But Rodney forced them to look at his angry face daily. He really did enjoy it, almost as if it were a game. No doubt, they were glad to see him go.

Later, I called Rodney at home and the voice answering the phone was barely recognizable. Turns out he had spent the past couple of nights sleeping outside in a park. I don't remember why, except that it had something to do with not wanting to be found by someone for some reason. It was obvious the defiant front was crumbling and giving way to confusion — but the rage was still intact. Like so many AIDS victims, his family was less than supportive and his relationship with his companion had been on the fritz for a while. He was alone, and he was preparing himself to die that way.

I reached Rodney a few more times before he stopped answering his voicemail, which eventually was disconnected. Still, for some reason I kept calling, vainly hoping to reconnect. Besides, I at least wanted to say goodbye.

Several weeks later, through the grapevine, I heard that Rodney had died. Not many details. I don't know if he died in a hospital or on the street. I am almost certain he died alone.

Just about everybody has an AIDS story. Some don't like to talk about it, some are ashamed of it; others are dying from it. Such is the terrifying reach of the disease that it has, in one way or another, touched families across America.

Of course, when the news of AIDS first started leaking out, it was a gay disease contracted mostly by white homosexual men, most of whom apparently lived in San Francisco. The news about New York came a little later. Then, of course, we found out that drug addicts who shared needles could contract the disease as well.

So far so good, right? To folks who viewed faggots and junkies as expendable, the disease seemed like a divine plague sent from above. As has been endlessly chronicled, most notably in the late Randy Shilts' book And the Band Played On, the federal response to this disease during the Reagan administration was virtually no response at all. These weren't Reagan's kind of people, and they most certainly didn't vote for him, so the hell with them. Why spend taxpayer dollars to save junkies and queers? It seemed so un-American. As everybody should know by now, nobody really much cared about AIDS victims except for other AIDS victims — until it became known that the "usual suspects" weren't the only ones who could get the disease. Once the "good and decent" folk of America began showing up at the hospitals, then, suddenly, there was a problem.

Today, AIDS is increasingly becoming a black thing. The disease is killing us at insanely higher rates than it is killing anyone else, which seems strange since so much more is now known about the disease. Something about that just doesn't compute.

Anyway, let's get to some statistics. Last June at the 2005 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conference on HIV in Atlanta, the organization focused on a study showing infection rates among men ages 13 to 24 fell 30 percent between 1994 and 1998, but then shot back up like a bottle rocket between 1999 and 2003. The spike was apparently caused by a 47 percent rise in new diagnoses among men having sex with other men. Sixty percent of those men were African-American.

And according to a recent report by the Black AIDS Institute — "The Way Forward: The State of AIDS in Black America," the source of the stats here — "CDC AIDS researcher Dr. Alan Greenberg said (at the CDC Atlanta conference) that the number of AIDS cases in America had for the first time topped one million, estimating between 1,039,000 and 1,185,000 people were HIV-positive as of 2003. African-Americans — a mere 13 percent of the total population — represent half of those people. Perhaps most shocking were the early results Greenberg cited from a large study of gay and bisexual men: Nearly half of the black men tested in the study's early results were positive."

That's not all. At this same conference the CDC unveiled its plan for a multi-year study to identify risk patterns among men who have sex with other men. The study will include more than 14,000 men in 17 cities. Early findings from the study, focusing on 1,746 men in five cities — Baltimore, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco — found that 25 percent of the men tested positive for HIV, and that 48 percent were unaware of their infections. Among the 18- to 24-year-olds, 79 percent were unaware. And of the 444 black men tested, 46 percent tested positive and 67 percent were unaware.

Right here in Michigan, 58 percent of all residents living with AIDS are black in a state that is only 14.2 percent black, according to the 2000 Census. Seeing as how the black population in Wayne County is slightly more than 42 percent black, and how Detroit's population is more than 80 percent black, it's not that difficult to figure out where the concentration is. Just for comparison, the two states with the highest rate of black AIDS victims are Mississippi and South Carolina, where 73 percent of all AIDS victims are black in both states.

Michigan — and Detroit in particular — have enough problems already. I'm aware of that. But somehow, some way, we have to find the will and the resources to tackle yet another crisis than simply won't wait.

If it were Rodney, I know he would just stay in everybody's face until they either moved in the right direction or knocked him down. If he was knocked down, he'd get back up and harass them down the street.

"Wait a minute. You think you're gonna knock a faggot down and then walk away? You must be mad! Hey! Bring your ass back here!"

And then would come the explosion of loud, sharp laughter that I still miss today. Maybe Rodney was on to something.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]