If AIDS is going to be called an Act of God, I want the phrase interpreted as it is in some insurance policies. I collected 100 percent instead of the usual $50 deductible when my car was damaged by a fire in the engine. For an insurance agent, Acts of God relieve the victim of any responsibility and therefore require total compensation. For god is one of those wanton boys Shakespeare told us about who kill us for their sport. His other names are accident, disease, natural disaster, death.
We live in a country which aspires to universal health care, which declares disaster areas for victims of earthquake and flood, which maintains rescue crews for people stranded in storms at sea, trapped in a wrecked aircraft, lost on a mountain. For anybody.
Yet when something terrible happens, particularly something before which we are helpless, the greatest temptation is to judge the victim. Victims, too, can seek defence against the irrational by looking for something or someone to blame, even themselves. For whatever cold comfort that is, it can seem preferable to facing the fact of random, morally purposeless disaster.
Illness, accident and death are not punishments for anything but being born. All our defences, personal and social, are temporary. All that lives dies. Whatever justice and mercy there are are not divine at all but human, and however faulty and frail they are, however finally defeated, they are the only tools we have in the face of crisis.
A morality based on a fear of death is so ridiculous it should be the source of comedy. All sins are mortal. All virtues are, too. Equally are youth and beauty, age and pain. Neither is it true that only the good die young nor that only the wicked are punished. Morality has nothing to do with death. It has to do with living.
"For the love of god," is usually an expression of exasperation, followed by "Can't you see...?" or "Can't you do...?" something that seems perfectly obvious and sensible to anybody. This god is quite a different sort of fellow from the one who killed mostly people praying in a cathedral during that earthquake in Colombia. His other names are right reason, concern, responsibility. He is in fact, the insurance agency. A friend of mine, skiing on a slope restricted to skiers, went over an unexpected bluff thinking, "For the love of god, why didn't I renew my health insurance policy?" Hindsight is twenty-twenty vision only when you live to tell the tale.
There is nothing wrong with foresight, as long as you don't believe in it, as long as it doesn't become a moral superstition. There are no odds against dying. You have to have foresight long enough to know that, too. Then it can be useful for us and our community.
All active gay men and lesbians are risk-takers, even those in the closet, because we don't have equal protection under the law. It is worthwhile to work for the time when we do. There is also reason to believe that we often don't have equal treatment in medicine. Why are gay men having to pay for shots against hepatitis B? It is important for us to raise such questions, to report doctors who treat us unequally or not at all, to support our own doctors, to put pressure on research funding agencies and to raise funds ourselves so that our needs are not neglected.
When we confront a new threat to us like AIDS, we must not waste time either fearing or loving god, nor must we listen to anyone else doing it for us. It is not difficult to behave responsibly with those already ill. We can insist on the best medical treatment available and learn, those of us who don't know already, how to participate in the life of someone who is dying.
For those who may be in danger, it is more difficult. We haven't much to go on but educated guesses about cause and treatment, and mild to wild predictions about the numbers involved. The baths, like swimming pools during polio epidemics, are suspected places of contagion, and, since they are used by transients as well as residents of any city, they may be, until the disease is better understood, places of high risk. We are all concerned that health authorities might use the excuse of AIDS to close down the baths and must resist those attempts unless evidence justifies them. Defiant denial of any risk would be irresponsible.
It has always been true that certain kinds of diseases are more prevalent among certain groups of people. One of every four women will have breast cancer, and, though the mortality rate isn't nearly as high as it presently is for AIDS, it kills many more women than AIDS will men. Women who have had children are at a higher risk. Nowhere have I seen it suggested that women should stop having children. I know one woman who has had two children after having one breast removed.
Cancer of the cervix, on the other hand, is more common among heterosexual women who have had more than one sexual partner, and doctors have frequently blamed women for a disease they might have avoided, making them feel morally responsible for their illness.
Illness is given moral stigma only when it is related to an activity or a group of people disapproved of.
My niece has five stress fractures in one leg from playing basketball. I wouldn't play. I wouldn't climb a mountain either or try to cross an ocean alone in a small boat or do a lot of other death-defying things so much admired as human achievements, simply for their own sake.
"Why do they do it, these men?" one of Ethel Wilson's female characters asks. "They do it to be uncomfortable, unlucky and for the greatest fulfillment of their lives."
For some men the baths may be what mountains are for others, worth the risk for the view at the top, both the experience and the freedom it symbolizes as good a thing to die for, or of, as any. Many more people die of pleasure, even of the sort reserved for procreation, than is ever reported in the newspapers. Why should it be less admirable than falling in battle, where people are actually trying to kill each other?
It is not the length but the quality of life that matters to me, more easily said now that I am over fifty. But it has always been important to me to write one sentence at a time, to live every day as it if were my last and judge it in those terms, often badly, not because it lacked grand gesture or grand passion but because it failed in the daily virtues of self-discipline, kindness, and laughter.
It is love, very ordinary human love, and not fear, which is the good teacher and the wisest judge.