The Last Page

The Names Project

By Kevin Aldridge '99

Sometime soon — probably in the coming academic year — AAVC will rededicate the AIDS memorial plaque, which was originally installed on the wall of Main Building’s Villard Room by the Lesbian and Gay Alumnae/i of Vassar College (LAGAVC) in April 1996. The names of Vassar community members who have succumbed to the disease since then will join the original 19 men listed on the plaque.

At the first dedication service, Bobby Rosenthal ’89 stated, “The plain truth is that the way things stand today, my name will one day occupy a space on the plaque.” Bobby passed away in November 2007, after a 20-year struggle with AIDS. His name is among those to be memorialized.

I find it difficult to imagine a rededication service without Bobby in attendance because he played such a pivotal role in my early AIDS education. Someone told me a long time ago that the most effective form of activism is being exactly who you are with the people in your life. Each of us is an ambassador for who we are and where we come from. Bobby spoke with candor about living with HIV at a time when it was an even more stigmatized subject than it is today.

Bobby had been an unknowing hero of mine ever since I first met him at Vassar in 1995. I was a freshman. Bobby visited every year, carrying a message of prevention through solidarity. When I first heard him talk about living with HIV, his courage was a revelation. Having been infected during his junior year, Bobby imparted an experience that could and would be our reality if we were not properly educated.

I finished my freshman year much more aware than when I’d first arrived on campus, and that summer got my first HIV test, which was negative. Six years later my second test came back positive. Among numerous thoughts conspiring against me, I could not escape the feeling that I had let people like Bobby down. Here were men and women, against all odds, speaking up, standing up to empower us to make different choices, with me doing the opposite.

It took some time for me to realize that the only person I’d let down was me. I was eventually able to start forgiving myself, a process that has been propelled by the stories of the people listed on the AIDS memorial who overcame fear and shame to educate the rest of us about this disease. Despite intense discomfort, I started getting honest with friends and family about my HIV status. My fear was overcome by the hope that sharing my story of being positive — as had been done for me — might keep someone from making the same mistake I’d made.

At the plaque’s first dedication in 1996, Bobby said that AIDS memorials, “as painful as they may be, must exist to stir our anger and incite us to fight so that when we do go, we are remembered.” That same year, antiretroviral therapy gave birth to a revolution in AIDS treatment. As treatment options continue to progress, AIDS educators now send a dual-strategy message: educate yourselves and each other to prevent infection; however, in the event you are infected, you can still live a long, healthy, and fulfilling life, as long as you get the proper care.

Long-term survivors like Bobby were on the front lines of an evolving struggle. We all owe an incalculable debt to those early fighters. They endured prejudice, ignorance, and confusion to motivate action. Bobby saw “no end in sight. There are no veterans and no survivors yet, only soldiers and casualties.”

The fight against HIV/AIDS continues. The fight is global, with some parts of the world so inadequately educated about the realities of prevention that infection rates soar. Much of the world is still ill-equipped to treat the disease. Variant and drug-resistant strains of the virus complicate treatment. The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that the infection rate in young gay men has increased by 12 percent, an indication that a “second-wave” epidemic is underway in the gay community.

At its rededication, at least four names will be added to Vassar’s AIDS memorial plaque. Even though we continue to lose people, we still have so much trouble talking about AIDS. This resistance resonates with me. I first joined the conversation at Vassar, but it was years before I started really listening.

When I read Bobby’s prediction that his name would be etched on the plaque, I wondered whether my name would one day occupy a space under his. Maybe. Maybe not. My purpose, as Bobby taught me, is to continue talking about HIV. I am not defined by it, though my character is shaped by what I do with the experience. Today, I choose to speak up.  

— Kevin Aldridge ’99

Kevin Aldridge is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.