“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” ~Dr. Angela Davis
I posted this quote on my FaceBook page and it spurred a discussion about making change in the world. Angela Davis played on the language of the Serenity Prayer to make her poignant point, and it worked. When someone close to me responded with, “Good luck with that,” it made me wonder if they missed the point.
Years ago, my uncle, a police detective, asked me if I was a bleeding heart. I was in the seminary at the time and I took it as a compliment, though it really wasn’t. As much as I wanted to be an instrument of change as a young seminarian, I hadn’t really experienced much hardship in life.
Soon after leaving the seminary, I met a guy named Gary Dowd. I just turned 23. Gary was a spectacular, enlightened, learned individual. He was a passionate high school English teacher, and he baptized me into the world of activism. Not long after renting a room from him in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles, I tested HIV positive. I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to. Gary grabbed me by the hand and said, “Come with me.” He was HIV positive as was the third member of the household. I had landed in the most supportive place possible. Gary took me to my first AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) meeting and introduced me to a group dynamic men and women.
ACT UP did a lot of joint activities with the L.A. Chapter of the National Organization for Women. We helped women get into clinics and past the “Operation Rescue” crowd blocking the entrance with their rosaries and prayers. We stopped the Rose Parade in 1990 for about a minute by sitting down across the street chained together. We also stood up and walked out of midnight mass that Christmas in Saint Vibiana’s Cathedral in Downtown LA in protest of the Catholic Church’s position on condom use related to disease transmission. I saw familiar faces at every turn from my former seminary days, but what was difficult for me to assimilate was the anger that I found with my fellow ACT UP brethren.
All of the members of this group expressed such deep felt anger, and I couldn’t find that within myself. Their anger came from the Catholic Church’s slow-moving position on HIV/AIDS (transmission prevention) including groups like Operation Rescue, and the federal government’s refusal to pass legislation on HIV/AIDS funding. Spending time with these remarkable individuals and listening to their stories helped me to see why it was necessary to fight for what was right.
I remember Gary crying one day out of frustration. He went to one of the three locations in Los Angeles where everyone with HIV/AIDS had to go to get their AZT (antiretrovirals to halt the progression of HIV). The pharmacy clerk said he couldn’t pick up his drugs due to some glitch. And that’s when he started screaming, “I need my fucking medications to live! Give me my god dammed drugs!” and she did.
I held Gary close, and it was then that I realized I had to fight to effect change. No one was going to do a thing if we didn’t yell, scream and commit more acts of civil disobedience. We had to get “in the way” and make ourselves heard. Within a year, in 1990, and with the help of an Indiana mother and her brave son with AIDS, the Ryan White CARE Act was signed into law. This was the much-needed HIV/AIDS funding legislation that our country needed to provide care and services, including medications, to individuals living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.
I am changing the things I cannot accept. I not only hear these words, I embrace them. Angela Davis was speaking to the fight for civil rights, but I’ve seen change in action. I’ve stared into the face of adversity screaming at me with self-righteous religiosity from the holiest of people. We don’t have to accept things the way they are just because that’s how they’ve always been.
I was told that the life expectancy of someone living with HIV/AIDS was ten years. We’ve learned a lot since 1989, but I never expected to see my 30th birthday, not to mention 40. I’m ecstatic about turning 50 next July. I’m sorry that Gary isn’t here to share that celebration, but he opened my eyes and heart to the need for change in the world. For that gift, I am forever grateful.