World AIDS Day with Señor: A 40 Year Look on AIDS

By Katina Handrinos

World AIDS Day is an international day dedicated to raising awareness for the AIDS epidemic. AIDS is a debilitating disease, and during the 1980s and 90s, both social and political responses to the epidemic brought the LGBTQ+ community together in activism. Lower School Spanish teacher, James Jer-Don, affectionately known by his students as Señor, participated in various AIDS protests and ACT UP meetings at the height of the epidemic in the United States. On December 1, World AIDS Day, I sat down with Señor Jer-Don to talk about his experience during the AIDS crisis.

Could you give some context of how old you were, where you were, and your feelings at the beginning of the AIDS crisis?

Nobody knows precisely when, but AIDS really came onto the radar in this country, probably in the early 80s. In 1982, I was a senior in high school, and I remember very, very distinctly reading in the newspaper about this mysterious gay cancer, and at the time it was being called GRIDS, which is gay-related immuno-defiency syndrome. I just remember, you know, I wasn’t out of the closet, but I knew who I was, and it was terrifying. I was negotiating my own anxieties about being gay in 1982, and then this disease appeared on the horizon, and it just scared me to death. After college, I spent every summer in New York City while I was working in Kentucky and, of course, being a 22-year-old gay guy, I met tons of gay men and then they just started dying. Suddenly, I was having the experience that people in their 80s have when their friends die, and there was just this overwhelming reality that we were dying as a community and nobody seemed to care. That was kind of my awakening, and I became really progressively more radicalized about it as I processed my grief, and I transformed my grief into rage. I think the lessons I learned then have made me the person I am now.

Did you participate in AIDS-related protests? What was that like for you?

I was never a leader in any of the protests, mostly because I was of course a guest, because in New York, I didn’t really live there, but I participated in die-ins; I participated in protests in New York City, and in DC, like in national protests. In New York, almost on every day of the week, there was some kind of activist protest or gathering, whether it was blockading something or protesting outside of pharmaceutical companies because they were stalling on releasing AIDS drugs, and when they did release them, they were basically toxic–and they were also charging ridiculous amounts. It was a death sentence to get [a] HIV-positive diagnosis early on. It started to change in the 90s when the first [drug] cocktails came along, and now, of course, people take one pill a day and go to the doctors twice a year to get T-cell count, and it’s like a manageable illness. But in 1984 or 1985, you knew you’d be dead by 1986. So it was really scary. Maybe naively in retrospect, but I really believed like, if we don’t protest, if we don’t shut things down, if we don’t make people feel our pain, we didn’t feel like anyone cared about our suffering.

How did you feel about the government or president’s response to the crisis? 

It was a disaster, and not just Reagan. Reagan was the worst, for a lot of reasons, one because he put his head in the sand about AIDS, and two because he had painted this picture of morning in America. His whole persona was, “Oh, it’s morning in America, we’re at a bright new future,” and I was like, “Well, am I not an American? Are my dozens and dozens of friends who died not American? The truth was, we weren’t considered really good Americans as gay men. Our culture has a lot of anxieties around sex and sexuality, so when a disease is associated with sexual behaviors, I think it’s easy to stigmatize it, instead of just saying it’s a disease like any other. Bush, with his compassionate conservatism, was nominally better, but really, he did nothing to expedite the release of the drugs. If you compare it to COVID, the COVID vaccines came remarkably fast, in scientific terms, and that’s because the government put hundreds of millions of dollars into developing a vaccine, because they cared about the people who were getting COVID. I don’t know where AIDS stood on the government’s checklist, but it wasn’t high. It was terrifying, and we were angry. 

So what are you thinking now, 40 years later, about the AIDS crisis? 

Here I am, 40 years on, during COVID, and I feel like suddenly the trauma of all that loss is present in my life. I was watching a show about AIDS, it was called “It’s a Sin,” and my husband and I were watching it, and we had to keep pausing it to cry because we had so much grief we had never let out. I first went to the AIDS quilt in DC, and I was paralyzed by the grief. Suddenly, all that rage was gone, and I was just standing there sobbing and sobbing, and this lesbian came over and hugged me, and we were crying together, total strangers, and it’s interesting how moving through that much loss that seemed so pointless made me feel that I was not an important player in the minds of powerful people, that I was disposable. That feeling really nested deep in me and surfaced during COVID. 

I also think that I’m really aware of the fact that HIV isn’t over, and there [are] a lot of human beings suffering from that terrible disease. I don’t want AIDS to just be my 40-year-old memories; I want us to actually think of World AIDS Day with the focus shifting from New York City to Lagos or Dakar, because it’s still real in those places and it’s a measure of our compassion for human beings how much we still think of it as real instead of some event that happened to my Spanish teacher 40 years ago.