I recently came across a BBC story about Ryan's life. It dawned on me that most people under 40 have probably have never heard of Ryan. If you have, you probably know his name as part of the federal government's Ryan White CARE Act. You probably don't remember the raw hate that was directed toward this little boy.
I remember hearing about him on the periphery. He and I are of the same generation. As he was using his life to "stand in solidarity with thousands of HIV-positive women and men," I was just starting to emerge from my own self-centered adolescence and waking up to the world around me. It really wasn't until two years after Ryan died that I understood what HIV/AIDS was.
I didn't learn about HIV/AIDS from a comprehensive sex education program in my high school. Things like that weren't discussed in my public school. How did I learn? I literally tripped over it. Just barely 20 years old, I was living in a tiny one room apartment on 44th and Broadway in New York City. In order to go grocery shopping, I walked down 44th across Broadway over toward Hell's Kitchen.
On July 14, 1992 I literally tripped over one of the largest AIDS protests of the time. United for AIDS Action and ACT-UP timed a massive gathering to bring awareness to the needs of people with HIV and AIDS to coincide with the Democratic National Convention held in Manhattan that week. The protest brought, depending on the estimate, between 10,000 and 50,000 people.
I never got to the grocery store that day. When I tried to cross Times Square a sea of people had gone down on the ground to stage a die-in. I looked for some images but couldn't find any. It was an amazing sight. These were in the days before digital photography and cell phone cameras.
It was a strange time. Fear was abundant as well as an ample amount of hate and ignorance. Death permeated that air, too. Not a day went by without a news report of the death of a famous person from AIDS.
It's worth taking the time to listen to the ten minute BBC program if you haven't heard of Ryan White. If you do remember him, it's worth listening to again.
In 1984, the year Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS, I was in an American history class. While Ryan was living a life that would become all of our shared history, I learned an important lesson (yes, there are a few important lessons from junior high history!). Dorothea Krenz, my teacher, walked around shaking each of our hands. She rattled off various important figures from history. Most of them, I believe, were notable figures from World War II. The details have faded over the past 27 years, but the point of the exercise has stuck with me. History is personal. It connects and links us together across space and time.
History serves as a good reminder about where we were, where we are, and where we might still yet go.