Pride 2018: “The AIDS crisis is how medical aid in dying first appeared on my radar.”

June 22, 2018

Alina Hammer (photo courtesy of Virginia Sajan)

It was early 1980; our friend Michael had just died of a mysterious disease in NYC. Next, Danny died, again of a mysterious disease. And so it continued. Within a couple of years it became clear that an unknown disease was attacking the gay community. Soon they began calling it “The Gay Cancer”! We thought it was both homophobic and ridiculous that they had assigned sexual preference to illnesses. We sat around making fun of them. Diabetes: gay or straight? Pneumonia: gay or straight?

As it turned out, the joke was on us. Little did we know, the AIDS epidemic was about to strike our community full force. The virus attacked the immune system, so we saw people suffering horribly and eventually dying agonizing deaths. There was no known cure at the time. Folks were asking for help to escape the long and painful deaths they were inevitably facing. We used to say it was like a nightmare we couldn’t wake up from.

Our government ignored what was happening in our community. It was only from within our community that we got help. In the midst of dire circumstances, folks stepped up! In the darkest of times, we showed ourselves to be brave, fearless, loyal, smart, caring and loving. Our unity has remained strong, and now we celebrate our great community every year in June with Pride!

The AIDS crisis is how medical aid in dying first appeared on my radar. So it only seems appropriate to write about this during Pride Month. We promised back then that we would never forget. And we never have. It had been a 35-year struggle when medical aid in dying finally became authorized in California. All the work for aid in dying that I have done, every trek I took to the state capitol to get this passed into law, every presentation I’ve done, every paper I’ve written (including this blog), I’ve done in honor and memory of all those who suffered so unnecessarily during the AIDS epidemic. And every year, throughout the years, I still carry in my heart the memory of my closest friends, Patrick, Bobby, John, Barron … we were all supposed to age together. But instead, they’ve died, and we are the survivors. So I’ve dedicated my life to this cause in their memory. I truly believe this is the civil rights issue of our generation, whose time has come.

And now the End-of-Life Option Act is under legal attack in California. But our community knows what it’s like to have to fight for our rights. We also know what it’s like to make gains, rejoice in the gains we’ve made, only to have them challenged again. I point to marriage equality as an example. Things changed drastically from 1996, when Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law, to 2013, when The U.S. Supreme Court ruled DOMA unconstitutional. During that same session, they dismissed an appeal over same-sex marriage leading the way for same-sex marriage in California! Our light was shining brightly that day! We went on to see marriage equality become legal nationwide in a June 2015 Supreme Court ruling. Gays and trans folks became accepted fully in the military and more. And now we are seeing those rights we fought so tirelessly for being challenged again.

Since the End-of-Life Option Act is being legally challenged in California, we must once again circle the wagons, rally the forces and stand together in support of our cause. This is part of the ebb and flow of civil rights issues. We know how to do this. It’s important that we remain positive and hopeful. We must keep our spirits up, fight tirelessly and remember this is just a bump in the road. The struggle continues!

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