Long-term HIV survivor reminds the next generation that there is still no cure.
Photo by Dalton DeHart
Bill McDugald is a native Houstonian and a 30-year HIV survivor who is currently serving as LIVE Consortium’s board chairman. Last month at the Consortium’s annual “This Is How We Brunch” event, he candidly and bravely shared his unique personal story about the heady days of New York City’s gay life in the 1970s following his privileged and sheltered upbringing in the boom years of post-war Houston.
The largely younger audience was moved by the candor of McDugald’s story, which stretched from the 1969 Stonewall riots (widely considered to be the birthplace of the modern gay liberation movement) to the beginnings of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, pausing pointedly to condemn the Reagan administration for its lack of response to the plague. “Reagan’s legacy is the AIDS epidemic. It is that simple.”
For the older audience members, the memories McDugald relived were palpable, familiar, and painful: “You must understand that under Reagan, AIDS became the tool and gay men the target for the politics of fear, hate, and discrimination. To that end, Reagan’s communications director Pat Buchanan stated that AIDS was ‘nature’s revenge on gay men.’ Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and close Reagan advisor, stated that ‘AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.’ These insidious and ironically ungodly men are a source of the very stigma we are working to cure here today.”
McDugald reminded the audience that by the time Reagan publicly uttered the word AIDS, “36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease; 20,849 had died.” Today, though treatment options are making HIV a manageable, though still serious, health issue, the stigmas created in the early days of the crisis remain. LIVE Consortium was founded to eradicate these social barriers to communication and treatment in Houston.
It was McDugald’s unexpected sharing of the following personal history of his brother Douglas that brought the importance of his story home to those in attendance:
On February 19, 1985, my beautiful and talented brother died. It wasn’t AIDS that killed him. It was kidney failure as a result of the huge quantities of Interferon they had given him in a desperate attempt to cure the AIDS. As was the case with too many people then, he was a guinea pig.
In April of 1986, a year after Douglas died, I tested positive. I was not surprised, and I told no one—not even my parents. How could I? My brother had just died a year earlier from the same disease.
My therapist, however, challenged me. He asked who I was protecting. So I took the next opportune moment to set my parents down and tell them. They didn’t know what to do. How could they? But that was only momentary. By the end of that day, I explained to them that I was healthy and I was not going to die. From that time on, they were able to be supportive—and for that I am extremely thankful.
When McDugald was diagnosed, the only approved drug treatment for AIDS was AZT. This was more than a decade before HIV would become a “manageable disease.” And incredibly, throughout that time it was still thought necessary to quarantine AIDS patients. McDugald served as a caregiver and volunteer in any capacity needed. “I had to,” he said. “My friends were dying.”
Although McDugald recalled the inevitable fatigue and burnout of those who survived the early days of the AIDS crisis, his concluding remarks brought a sense of hope to the capacity crowd at Reef Restaurant and Bar:
I got involved again. It was time.
I volunteered with LIVE at its first Anti-Stigma Campaign at the University of Houston in 2009. It was a revelation! Here was a group of men and women talking about HIV in public, and I could talk about my own status and it was okay.
Then in 2010, with Beau Miller’s encouragement (and in his charming way, he is relentless), I joined the LIVE board of directors. This is my second year as chairman, maybe going into a third year. I am humbled to be working with such an amazing group of people, all but two of whom are volunteers. And we are making progress.
I’ve been living with HIV for over 30 years. It has taken an enormous toll on my life, my career, my relationships, my family, and my friends. At the beginning there was isolation, secrecy, and the fear of being exposed and rejected. I felt I couldn’t tell most of my friends, and I certainly could not tell any of my business associates.
Today, I am very fortunate to have the full support of my family and a huge circle of friends who love and support me—and also these extraordinary guys working with LIVE.
There is still this stigma thing; I deal with it in my life every day. We all do. Not all of it is about HIV. Some of it is about being gay—about lifestyle—but that is changing. The more we put ourselves out there, the faster it will change. The more we get involved and speak up, the greater the change.
Now look at us—we’re here, HIV-positive and HIV-negative men and women, together in a very public forum in this awesome restaurant, changing the stigmas that so negatively impacted more than half of my life. By talking about this huge problem, by having a voice, there is so much we can do together.