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Compassion in the age of AIDS

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By Adam Braff

The old adage that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades has, like most rules, been overturned in these years of AIDS. Proximity has proven to be the only way to convince people of the horror the disease has spread. Friday's observance of World AIDS Day took me back four years to the first time I was formally educated about the HIV virus, in high school.

We, the students, watched a videotape of Rae Dawn Chong pleading that "AIDS is hard to get." No argument there -- by 1985, only a few dozen people had died that way in our county. We listened to the gym teacher read a few dry paragraphs off a xeroxed sheet, and treated that lecture the way we did those regarding drunk driving and marijuana. That is, we blew it off. At least drunk driving and marijuana were immediate. AIDS was, as the clich'e goes, somebody else's problem. What's more, the attitude was one of desperation, as if the world was trying to find a way to stop the unstoppable.

Times have changed, and AIDS education has changed as well. Undertakings like the NAMES?? Maybe Kristin Gardner from ARMIT will call us back and say whether or not this is an acronym and what it stands for.--mg Project are not about science and abstract suffering, but emphasize the people, living and dead, who are affected by the epidemic. The Project takes the form of an 11,000-panel quilt, part of which was displayed in Lobby 7 on World AIDS Day.

I spoke with Imtiyaz Hussein '91, a member of AIDS Response at MIT, about the project and its manifestation here.

"We tried to get as many people as possible from different departments to speak [in Lobby 7] to show that it is a disease which affects everyone," he said. He stood behind a table on which rested fact sheets about ARMIT, World AIDS Day, and the NAMES Project. Next to him a videotape showed the origins of the enormous quilt which has come to symbolize the warmth of those people of rare compassion who have dedicated their time to AIDS education and support.

"Today people would gather every time we would show it," Hussein said. "People would look at the quilt and the video and start crying, because it was all so close to them, how young some of them were." He pointed to part of a quilt suspended high in the corner of the lobby. "This one was 28 years old when he died. Often college students don't realize their friends can die, since the incubation period is so long."

I looked at the panel he had pointed out. It said "EDDIE KING/1960-1988/BUDDY, HERO, AIDS EDUCATION." Other panels had equally poignant messages: "FRED/A STRAIGHT MAN MOURNS HIS BEST FRIEND -- A GAY ONE" and "JEAN DuBOIS/HE DIED IN HIS 50th YEAR." Each panel was a different color, lending symbolic support to Hussein's description of an epidemic that affects everyone.

Peculiarly, all the names on the panels seemed to belong to men. I say "peculiarly" because the portrayal of women as AIDS victims would bring the disease a great deal closer to the heterosexual male community. The dark photograph of Alison Gertz this year in Esquire touched me more than any other image of the epidemic. She contracted AIDS through a single encounter with a bisexual man, and now travels around the country to show Americans that the epidemic is no longer restricted to men or homosexuals. We all have heard these words, yet it takes a concrete image for us to internalize them. This, to me, is the strength of the NAMES Project.

You may recall that on Friday a cold snap began which lasted through the weekend. It was not warm in Lobby 7. As the quilts trembled in the breeze, a man spoke from the videotape beneath them. The monitor showed his face and his name. "Michael" was talking about his future.

"My family and I are working on my quilt right now so I can have a hand in it -- we're going to make it a family project," he said.

Just after 3 pm, a crowd of students emerged from the Infinite Corridor, zipping up in preparation for the cold. A dozen or so stopped when they heard Michael's voice, and turned to watch the tape. Another Michael, the general manager of the NAMES Project, was reading a list of victims' names as a camera panned across the massive quilt. Each name echoed throughout the lobby.

It struck me then that we were making progress. Even if we can't find a cure, I thought, we can climb out of our apathy in order to comfort the living, to create our own symbols, to disseminate knowledge faster than disease. The will to reform, I also realized, dies quickly. It is imperative that AIDS projects appear in a different form every week, that they not come to town on Friday and leave town on Saturday, that the heterosexual community be shocked into action by pictures of Ali Gertz and other symbols which are too close to home.

I asked Hussein if he had anything to say to the press. "Write this," he said. "Even though it was cold in Lobby 7, the activities of the day brought warmth."

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Adam Braff, a junior in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, is a columnist for The Tech.

Maybe two sandwich quotes will be enough? -- m.g.

At least drunk driving and marijuana were immediate. AIDS was, as the cliche goes, somebody else's problem.

"People would look at the quilt and the video and start crying," Hussein said, "because it was all so close to them, how young some of them were."

We all have heard that the epidemic can affect anyone, yet it takes a concrete image for us to internalize this. The image, to me, is the strength of the NAMES Project.