I’m modestly famous for a speech I gave thirty years ago. It was called “A Whisper of AIDS,” offered as a keynote address at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston.
On that steaming Wednesday evening, I began by asking the Republican Party “to lift the shroud of silence which has been draped over the issue of HIV/AIDS. I have come tonight to bring our silence to an end.”
I don’t have, or expect, an invitation to any Republican events in 2022. What it meant to be Republican has been eviscerated. I’ve grown old watching that Party’s demise as it has sunk into the depths of prejudice, injustice, brutality and an embarrassing absence of moral integrity symbolized by an ex-president who is a national scandal.
What hasn’t changed in the thirty years since Houston is the need for people to bear witness. In 1992, my aim was to show the world that AIDS was the child of a virus, not the offspring of a moral failing. I was my own example. I bore witness by presenting my dying body as evidence that AIDS was not merely a gay man’s disease; by staking my claim to the reality that “the AIDS virus is not a political creature. It does not care whether you are Democrat or Republican. It does not ask whether you are black or white, male or female, gay or straight, young or old.” I bore witness.
For a decade or two following my evening in Houston I gave speeches, initially several each week, sometimes two or three a day. I traveled the country, and later the globe, speaking and bearing witness to what it means to be HIV-positive, why stigma is a ferocious enemy, and what policies were (and still are) needed to bring justice and healing to the global AIDS communities. I spoke and I spoke and I spoke. Eventually, age and repetition — and a fairly mean and stubborn case of cancer — made me emotionally hoarse. I was increasingly unsure that public speaking mattered. I mostly went quiet.
Whether speaking out publicly is an effective policy-change strategy or not, I’ve come to believe that it’s necessary. Raped women dare not speak out; someone needs to speak for them. Abused children are gagged by their abusers. Political leaders in Arizona and Texas are silent as the bodies of migrants, stuffed into hellishly hot trucks, die at the border. Silence is evil’s best friend.
Speaking out from the relative comfort of my home may not change any realities except one: It changes what I am doing. Ultimately, it changes me.
Viktor Frankl could not undo the Holocaust by the time he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. But he could bear witness, and he did, thereby giving needed images, memories and models for those of us who came later. He bore witness to the atrocities that are beyond imagination, and to a compassion that was even more stunning.
“We who lived in the concentration camps,” he told us, “can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.”
He bore witness.
In the days that lie before us, we need to bear witness. Trans children and pregnant women are being denied basic medical care. Already, they are dying under the weight of unjust policies. To maintain silence while opioid-fueled lives generate unprecedented rates of suicides and corporate profit; while racism and antisemitism become campaign slogans about crime; while politicians traffick innocent migrants; while poverty consigns our elderly to whimpering deaths — I, for one, need to end my own silence.
In a simple, quiet act, bearing witness means that I will vote. I will exercise the franchise that Republican power brokers want removed from those they fear will “vote the wrong way”: Black and Brown people. Indigenous communities. Democrats. I have only one vote but I have one.
Meanwhile, I will bear witness. You’re welcome to join me in breaking out of the silence in which so many of us live our worried lives, fearful that the next election cycle will bring a greater loss of freedoms. Join me in speaking out, in lifting the shroud that hides us.
Come, join me, let us joyfully and adamantly bear witness to the truth!