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My journey with AIDS Walk

Posted: August 5th, 2016 | Back Out With Benny, Columns, Featured | No Comments

By Ben Cartwright | Back Out With Benny

Last month, I shared with you the story of my first realization of San Diego Pride — or the fact that this thing called Pride existed anywhere — in 1996 at the age of 16. Well, it turns out that 1996 was a year of all sorts of discoveries for me.

It was also the year I discovered AIDS Walk San Diego — and started seriously getting scared.

Benny Cartwright (Photo by Rob Lucas Modern Aperture Photography)

Benny Cartwright
(Photo by Rob Lucas Modern Aperture Photography)

You see, I had engaged in oral sex for the first time in my life several months earlier and it freaked me out. Growing up in suburban San Diego, I was lucky enough to be exposed to safe-sex and HIV/AIDS education, but because the virus was not yet under control like it is today, they scared the pants back on us with the HIV talks in school.

In fact, I’ll never forget the panel of HIV-positive men with full-blown AIDS that were paraded in front of the entire school during an assembly that year. They were all in their 20s and 30s, but all four of them looked like they were at least 65. I can still remember that two of the men were using a walker, one was in a wheelchair, and the other had to hold onto the back of a chair to stand up. Their message to us San Diego high school kids: Have unprotected sex and you will look like us in 10 years.

Being that I had just realized I was gay around that time, I figured it was only a matter of months or years before I found out that I had HIV, and I just assumed I wouldn’t live to see 30. This was the real fear that HIV and AIDS put into so many of our minds.

My younger brother was in the eighth grade at the time and his junior high school was forming a team to participate in the 1996 AIDS Walk San Diego. My brother and family were all so surprised when I told them I had no interest in going to the walk or supporting my brother’s team. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with it and didn’t want to hear about it. When the morning of the walk rolled around, I did get roped into driving my brother to Balboa Park to drop him off and even then he asked me if I just wanted to park and walk with his team. It’ll be fun, he assured me.

I wasn’t having it. I just told him “no” and that I’d be back in a couple of hours to pick him up. Driving away from the park, I saw people in their AIDS Walk T-shirts, holding signs and getting ready to begin this incredibly important event that not only served as a huge fundraiser for very necessary HIV/AIDS services, but so many of the walkers were also participating to remember one or many people that they had lost in the 15 years since the epidemic began.

While HIV/AIDS was some big, bad, scary thing that I knew little about — except that I didn’t want to contract it and that I was at a higher risk as a gay male teenager — at the time, I didn’t grasp the pain, fear and anger so many of the people walking that day had been living with for many years. Some of them were living with HIV or AIDS and were fighting for their lives. Some were friends or family members of people who had died of AIDS. Others were just angry and fed up from years of no one helping.

I, too, was scared, but too scared to even get out of my car. So my first AIDS Walk San Diego was not one where I raised lots of money, or volunteered, or led a team (all things I’ve done since), but one where I did everything possible to avoid the event. Being there would have made me face the fact that I was scared to death of this “thing” and had no one to talk to about it. And being just 16 years old, I had no idea where to go to get an HIV test, or be around others who might share the same fears. It was frightening.

What I didn’t know at the time was that 1996 was the first year since the epidemic began in 1981 that the number of new HIV infections went down.

People were still getting very sick, but treatments were finally starting to improve, and there was some hope. Being a teenager growing up around this, I (thankfully) didn’t have to witness any of my friends die— and I can’t imagine what it was like for the people who lost friend after friend after friend for years.

One current friend of mine, who is several years older, told me that almost every week in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he would hear of another friend or acquaintance who had lost their battle with AIDS.

“I had to become numb after awhile, or I wouldn’t have been able to live with the constant pain,” he once told me.

But for a teenager who was told there is this thing out there that can kill, and seeing first-hand all of the news reports, movies and other images that depicted HIV/AIDS at the time, it really stuck with you.

As I’ve written in other publications before, I didn’t get my first HIV test until I was 25 years old — an entire decade after my first sexual encounter. Over that 10-year period, the back of my mind swirled with scary thoughts almost every single day. I remember getting a really bad cold around Christmas in 2002 and telling myself it would be my last Christmas alive. When my paternal grandmother was dying in 2004, I remember thinking to myself that at least she and I wouldn’t be alone, because we would die together. These thoughts and fears were irrational, but fear is a strange thing.

Even though I remain HIV-negative to this day, it’s sometimes still difficult for me to process that. For so many years, I believed I had HIV — and that I was going to die — and when I receive medical evidence to the contrary, it’s a surprising relief.

Now, 20 years after that first encounter with AIDS Walk San Diego, I’m working full time at The Center (the producer of what is now called AIDS Walk & Run San Diego) and I work very hard each year to raise funds for the event. I also lead The Center’s popular and award-winning #BeTheGeneration outreach campaign, which seeks to educate community members about the many tools we have to prevent and treat HIV today.

Such great tools, in fact, that we are now at a point where we are confident that we can end new infections of the virus within a decade.

I never thought I would have a job that deals with HIV issues, but I am so pleased to have been given this experience. I now have the knowledge and tools to help people work through the same fears that I lived with for so many years.

I also take shifts in The Center’s HIV testing room, providing free HIV tests to community members, and almost everyone who walks in that room has some sort of fear, some at the point of freaking out, to others who have just had this little voice festering in their head for months.

Regardless of the results of their test, it makes me so happy to see people walking out of the room armed with real knowledge and their anxieties drastically lessened.

While HIV is not the scary death sentence it was just a few years ago, so many people still see HIV in their mind as it was in 1984 and helping them get those images out of their minds is a great feeling.

With all this said, I really hope you will consider supporting this year’s AIDS Walk & Run San Diego — 20 years after I first encountered the event (AIDS Walk was founded in 1985 by Susan Jester as the Walk for Life). So many incredible advances have been made in our fight against HIV and AIDS but so many people still need your support. If you can give $5 or $500, every bit will help! You can donate to my AIDS Walk fundraising efforts here tinyurl.com/h5me9lr. Thank you!

AIDS Walk & Run San Diego is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 24. Whether or not you want to walk or run, or just participate as a “virtual walker” (that means you can raise money and support the cause but stay home in bed on event day), visit aidswalksd.org to register.

Get out with Benny

San Diego Pride is now behind us, which means it’s almost time for Hillcrest CityFest on Sunday, Aug. 14. Some people call this event “Pride Lite,” as it has some of the same fun spirit as Pride, in a more relaxed environment. Hillcrest CityFest is produced by the Hillcrest Business Association and is one of the largest neighborhood street fairs in the city. The day includes street vendors, music, a large beer garden, games, and so much more — all with a Hillcrest flair. Plus, after it gets dark, some of our favorite local DJs take over the stage and hundreds of people dance under the Hillcrest sign — there’s nothing cooler than that! Meet me under the Hillcrest sign Aug. 14 for the best Sunday Funday of the year! Info at fabuloushillcrest.com.

While there are so many other events going on this month (even August is a busy one!), I try to take it easy for a few weeks after CityFest so we can keep on “gettin’ out” the rest of the year. The holidays will be here before we know it!

I hope you all have a restful end of summer, although we know the summer weather is here to stay in San Diego until at least October, and get to fundraising for #AIDSWalkSD!

—Benny Cartwright is the director of community outreach at the San Diego LGBT Community Center. He can be reached at 619-692-2077 ext. 106 or outreach@thecentersd.org

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