Archive for July 28th, 2009

At a weekend BBQ I bit my tongue when a guest was applauded for volunteering for an AIDS fund-raiser. It’s not that I don’t believe money should be spent to find a cure. I do. But we’ve been hosting proverbial ‘bake sales’ for decades now and we’ve seen no sizable decrease in the rate of infection.

Perhaps our time and money would be better spent building social and political institutions that support self-awareness and self-esteem. The elimination of such social factors as loneliness, isolation and shame could have a great impact on future infection rates.

For example, there are few, if any social institutions that suggest that gay men should work towards couple-hood or that support gay couples once together. Even within our own ranks we often throw in the towel when our relationships become stressed or strained.

The absence of same-sex marriage is glaringly absent as a social institution. We have no social rights to inheritance, no Social Security benefits from would-be spouses and no property rights. The social message here is “you’re on your own”.

A recent Chicago Tribune article brought tears to my eyes as an example of the toll that the absence of these social institutions have taken on one man.

After the war and after graduating from college, Engandela met Joseph in New York City and, in the 1950s, brought him home to Chicago. They set up together in an apartment on Cornelia Avenue.

Now Mr. Engandela lives alone in a home for seniors in Evanston.

Consider that, according to SAGE estimates (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Elders) almost 90% of gay retirees have no children and 80% of have no partners.

While these numbers currently represent a population that has lived through various social and political difficulties, little has changed for my generation and those who will follow. The necessary social and political institutions are still not fully in place.

It’s not an obvious correlation – HIV rates and partner-less gay retirees, but when as a whole, a population has nothing to look forward to as it ages, self-esteem and self-worth dwindle. When self-worth is relegated away accountability is also diminished and this sets the stage for risky sexual behavior.

Behavior is still responsible for the majority of new HIV infections. Large sums of money have been spent building an infrastructure for those seeking anonymous sex, the often still (sub)cultural norm for “socializing”. Bath houses, circuit parties, and on-line resources take in millions of dollars annually – by willing contributors.

These institutions perpetuate the very challenge that we need to overcome – social isolation fostered by a diminished sense of self-worth.

Institutions such as Stonewall Columbus and the Center on Halsted in Chicago are working diligently to create a new vision for the population and it is institutions such as these that have the ability to ultimately change our vision of ourselves. Scores of programs are available to assist virtually every segment of the gay, lesbian and trans-gender communities.

I had a chance to tour the Center on Halsted last week – a 55,000 square foot, $20+ million facility. Anchored by a Whole Foods, the facility contains a gymnasium, theater, counseling areas, a commercial kitchen and meeting spaces (and much, much more) packaged in stunning LEED certified building. In a very short time, the Center on Halsted has become a neighborhood institution that serves many different people and so many different needs.

There’s no doubt that we have to continue to fund HIV/AIDS research but more importantly we have to change beliefs and build the social institutions that support mental, physical and spiritual well-being. These institutions will have a greater impact on current and future generations than anything else I could imagine.

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