The Fuse Is Burning on AIDS Powder Keg

Marianne Kelly is a free-lance writer.

It is not yet a common thing in San Diego, among heterosexuals, to lose a friend to AIDS. There are no funerals for us to go to. There are no eulogies for us to write. Most of us have not dealt with the loss of professional colleagues. The disease distances itself from us "by its very nature," some of us rationalize.

And yet once a month in Room 311 of the Department of Health Services on Pacific Highway, epidemiologist Dr. Michele Ginsberg compiles a deadly list. It contains the AIDS cases in San Diego County, and every month the numbers have jolted upward. In 1981, there were two reported cases of AIDS here. Now there are well over 400.

Yes, one might argue that the numbers here still apply to homosexuals. The incidence of disease among heterosexuals, even intravenous drug users, remains dispassionately small. Surely, there is little cause for our immediate alarm. We will face it later, sometime in the distant future. We stand silent and watch the storm clouds gather. But they do not gather for us. It is not our storm.

Terry Cunningham, the educational coordinator of the San Diego AIDS Project thinks otherwise. "San Diego is sitting on a powder keg," he warns. Cunningham compares the current situation in San Diego with New York City in 1983. "There were only about 400 cases of AIDS in New York City in 1983," he says. Now, according to reports published by the Centers for Disease Control, there are nearly 9,000 cases.

"We can go either way in this community. If we can get the information out, we can stop the spread of this disease. I want to paper San Diego County with pamphlets," he says with missionary zeal. "Too many people are dead. Too many people are dying. This issue is too important."

Cunnningham goes on to speak of the projected impact of AIDS in the heterosexual community. The military and the universities combine to provide a large, youthful and highly mobile population. There is high incidence of intravenous drug use here. We have a fluid, international border complete with the inherent economics of sexual exploitation.

Cunningham is pessimistic about the future. He fears that local statistics must reach "a critical mass" before the people of San Diego will demand action.

In the meantime, according to Cunningham, the San Diego AIDS Project faces a diversion of $70,000 of its public funding in the next fiscal year. And the telephones continue to ring. If the funding is cut, it will not silence the phones, which ring on late into the night at the AIDS Project's gray 4th Avenue house.

At the other end of the line are the terror-stricken, the panicked and the doomed.

Leaving the AIDS Project after my talk with Cunningham, I notice a young man in his early 20s talking to a woman staff member about his own age. He has blond hair, blue eyes, broad shoulders. A typical San Diego boy, one might think, having seen his like many times before on this city's beaches and boardwalks.

Passing the two of them as I crossed the small foyer toward the door, I could not help but overhear a part of their conversation. "I don't know . . . maybe it's nothing . . . maybe I'm just being psychosomatic," the young man said.

"I don't mean to scare you," the staff member replied in a small, but firm voice, "but those are the symptoms . . . "

In the waning days of winter, Larry Baza and Carla Kirkwood sat in the Java Coffeehouse and talked of the Artists for AIDS Assistance Fund Benefit (which was held at the Lyceum Theatre). It was a week before the performance and Larry Baza, then associate director of Sushi Performance Gallery, one of the benefit's organizers, talked about the reasons why San Diego's first major AIDS benefit was taking place.

Baza twisted a simple, gold ring on his right hand and spoke of being weary of marking the passage of the young and the meteorically gifted. He is tired of AIDS deaths in the local community being camouflaged in the media. He agonizes over whether he himself will ever contract the disease. On this day there was another matter that puzzled him deeply.

"Where is the heterosexual community on this issue?" he asked emphatically. "Where are the professional people? Are they going to wait until somebody they personally know dies before they do anything about this?" It is Baza's reasoning that although a large percentage of performing artists are homosexual, their audiences are largely heterosexual. "I want our own audiences there," he said.

Kirkwood, an actress and director, also puzzles over the lack of involvement by the heterosexual community. Kirkwood works as a director of the New Image Teen Theatre, which operates under the auspice of Planned Parenthood. New Image creates theatrical presentations on social and health issues that directly affect teen-agers. The student performers bring these messages to their peers in junior and senior high schools throughout San Diego County.

Kirkwood talked about the AIDS piece the kids put together two years ago for school presentations. But it was deemed "too controversial" by school authorities and was cut from the program. The group then took the tack of incorporating AIDS information as a sub-topic in pieces that discuss other issues as well.

Kirkwood looked out of the window into the gathering dusk and turned her half-empty coffee cup in her hands. "The kids want to do a video about AIDS," she said wistfully, "but we're having a hard time raising the money."

A week later, the Lyceum Theatre was sold out. Larry Baza got his wish. Eight thousand dollars was raised for the AIDS Assistance Fund. It was enough to fund the program for two weeks. Carla Kirkwood's portrayal of a woman whose child died of AIDS as a result of a tainted blood transfusion was wrenching. The New Image Teen Theatre was innovative, funny and informative, winning some of the grandest applause of the evening.

At intermission, I talked with a friend who works in a Mission Valley office. A co-worker had asked her what she was doing that evening. When she responded that she was attending an AIDS benefit, the woman looked at her askance and replied, "Oh well, I suppose someone has to go to those things."

Until now, somebody has always meant the local gay community. But as heterosexuals begin to flood public testing centers--as they have in recent weeks--and as the number of AIDS cases continues to grow locally, the lines of demarcation are no longer so easily drawn.

The burden of AIDS education in our community can no longer be left to a handful of overworked people. It's time we recognized that the responsibility for providing financial and emotional support for AIDS victims goes far beyond one gray house on 4th Avenue in Hillcrest.

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