My Story

Ben Brown Jr.

The voice inside your head tells you: "Easy to be angry..."

25 years ago, I gathered together with friends and family in the leather community to discuss what we were gonna do about it.

I was brand new to leather in 1984. I would meet someone amazing on Monday of one week, and then I was going to a funeral on Friday of the following week for that same beautiful person. People were dying because of it.

We found out that people love to use labels. Back then we called it GRID. The media staring calling it AIDS. Regardless of what we called it, the important to thing to remember is that we gave it a name.

And then it became something else altogether. And everything changed.

It gave both sides something to champion or vilify. This was a very polarizing time. Just being gay meant that people would shun you. These were the days before rapid-response tests. Hell, we didn't even know where it came from or what caused it. We just know it seemed to hit us particularly hard in the leather community, and hit with a vengeance it did.

We started groups. We had slogans. We marched in the streets. People threw things at us. The police beat us. I still carry the scars on my head, visible only now when I shave myself bald. We went to jail, and we were persecuted for "our lifestyle" and "our disease".

More than anything, we were scared shitless. What we did was completely reactionary. We were gonna fight to the death, and die with our boots on.

We eventually became a culture of "No" to try and stop it , and many of us went underground.

I became HIV positive in December of 1989, right after my 21st birthday. No trauma, no anger, nothing really emotionally to speak of when I got the call from my doctor. I just assumed it was going to find me, and the day was here.

The voice inside your head tells you: "Easy to be angry..."

Then the drugs came. And everything changed again.

A miracle, of sorts. We could live longer than we ever could before, at least in the West. We were promised the lifestyles of the rich and famous in advertising for these products. In reality, it was a placebo. We had massive side effects. Sometimes, the drugs didn't work. We became a culture of "quantity vs. quality". Many chose quantity, because just ten years prior, quantity was a pipe dream.

And then the survivor's guilt set in. And everything changed yet again.

Did we lose our focus? Did we sell out? Did we deserve the privilege of life when our mentors, those who taught us the beauty and strength of the truth, now have grass growing over them? Did we learn anything? Are we being responsible? Are we being honest?

More sloganeering; Oprah television specials; red ribbons at numerous awards shows.

Did it mean a God-damn thing?

Rent assisted housing, health care, food banks, transportation. We were grateful for the services, but inside at times we felt the deepest shame as men. We were alive, but barely. With our purpose diminished, was this the life we promised ourselves?

I saw money come in like never before. And some got greedy. Agencies set up to protect those during our Holocaust were living large; some of these multi-million dollar agencies actually went bankrupt, while many of the survivors of the disease were lucky to make their bills on their meager SSI check.

The voice inside your head tells you: "Easy to be angry...harder to forgive."

This is a testament to our strength to overcome our obstacles, to remember our fallen, to alert others to danger, to stay informed, to be honest and not to judge. Most importantly, this is a testament to forgive. When you don't forgive someone or something, it takes hold of you. You will never be free until the day you can say it doesn't matter. And then it doesn't have a name anymore. Then, most importantly, you have forgiven yourself.

And here I am again. It's 2009. I am still meeting with friends and family not just in the leather community, but in our entire extended family to discuss what we are gonna do about it.

This is the time to make your stand. This is the time to keep your promise. This is time to take responsibility and be honest. This is the time to live again. We look tall because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Make them proud. Make yourself proud. Inspire others to their greatness.

Mark your calendars for Tuesday, 01 December 2009. Register and support your local World AIDS Day events in Oregon and SW Washington. Know I will be there right by your side.

And, always forgive, but never forget.

Bear hugs,
Ben Brown Jr.
Mr. Oregon State Leather 2007