Hansen: Ignorance and HIV

January 02, 2014|By David Hansen
  • Rev. BJ Beu, far right, joins others as they read aloud the names of family and friends lost to AIDS during last year's World AIDS Day festivities at Main Beach.
Rev. BJ Beu, far right, joins others as they read aloud… (Don Leach, Coastline…)

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series about HIV and AIDS. Last week featured a look into the life of Scott Alan, a Laguna Beach AIDS and cancer survivor. This column focuses on local HIV support and education programs.

Don't hug him. Don't shake hands. And whatever you do, don't kiss.

When HIV and AIDS started escalating out of control in the 1980s and 1990s, few people knew how to deal with it. Rumors were rampant. People were afraid, angry and helpless.

Family members fought against each other. There were drama-filled holidays, misinformed stories and hateful urban legends.

Should we sterilize the silverware or just throw it out?

What towel did he use in the bathroom?

I think he coughed on me.

It was a nightmare.

People with HIV were treated like outcasts — or worse.

Everyone seemingly has a story from that time.

I have a family member with HIV. The first time after the "news" in the late 1990s, the upcoming Christmas party was a huge ordeal. The whole family was in a tizzy about how to handle the new reality.


Finally, it came down to my 80-something grandfather to set the example by greeting my HIV family member at the door — in front of everyone — with a big hug and a purposeful kiss on the lips.

There were a few gasps but otherwise, everyone shut up after that.

Today, reactions are still less than ideal.

"Many of my neighbors still live in fear," said Brian Sadler, a member of the Laguna Beach HIV Advisory Committee.

Sadler lives in Hagan Place, the 24-unit, federally subsidized housing complex on Third Street that only shelters people with HIV.

He said those with HIV often struggle with public acceptance. The son of a Kansas preacher, Sadler knows about disapproval, family struggles and beliefs about right and wrong.

"The whole town became toxic toward me," he said. "I felt like the leper. Now, I'm only as sick as my secrets, so I wear my HIV on my sleeve."

The way Sadler coped when he arrived in Laguna in the late 1990s was by starting activities in Hagan Place, first by cooking meals in the community kitchen, then organizing movie and game nights.

"You need a relief valve," he said.

Over the years, the activities helped but people with HIV tend to stay under the radar.

When Sadler joined the city's HIV committee about 10 years ago, he enjoyed shifting his attention to education.

The committee has several outreach programs geared toward young people, including the high school and local Boys and Girls Club.

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