By: Aaron M. Laxton, HIV-Infected Queer Activist and Blogger
Weeks ago the status feed on my Facebook and other social media was captivated by one particular name... Spencer Cox. Throughout the days following his death activists from around the world shared stories and articles in reference to Spencer. As I opened up my email there was a plethora of condolence emails which all began something like this: "Loss of a pioneer...", most shared in what capacity the person sending the email had interacted with Spencer.
As information regarding his drug addiction and personal struggle with post-traumatic stress became public, the world got a glimpse of the bruised and battered warrior who stood valliantly behind the armor. Spencer saturated himself in the science of HIV and is directly credited by Peter Staley, a fellow AIDS activist who was featured on "How to Survive a Plague", for saving the lives of over eight-million patients; a result of his efforts to standardize protocols which were adopted by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) which brought about the protease inhibitor.
In the plague era, Cox found himself in a time before society had a name for what is now called AIDS. It first appeared as a rare cancer seen in eleven gay men, for a time it was called GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) and finally would become AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Friends and lovers were falling one by one at first and over time those numbers increased to staggering, alarming rates. Although everyone wanted to believe that they would live, the reality was that while death called upon a vast majority relatively quickly, others would be left forever scarred by pain, suffering and misery. Just as with any masscre or distaster the toll of the event is long-lasting and life-changing.
Political inaction which left those living, or rather dying, with AIDS was tantamount to goverment-sanctioned death for patients during the plague years. Cox, a genius and pioneer was sentenced to death long ago by such politicians who turned a blind eye to an entire community that was being ravished by AIDS. Although today the political climate has, to a great deal, embraced HIV/AIDS, this certainly was not the reality of the plaque era. Cox and his fellow activists directly challenged not only the New York City Hall but also the White House and almost every major establishment in Washington, D.C. A politician's disinterest and lack of desire to become involved only further motivated activists such as Cox to blaze a trail into unknown territory.
It was the introduction of the Denver Principes which boldly proclaimed that those infected were "AIDS patients" rather than "AIDS victims" and to this end Cox was no victim at least in the short-term. In the long-term Cox was merely the tip-of-the-iceberg regarding a marginalized and disenfranchised community who was viewed by politicians as "acceptable losses".
There are followers and then there are leaders and those abilities are as much a gift as they are an art. Spencer Cox without doubt would forever changed the landscape of AIDS in the United States and Globally. His death however also serves as one last action. An action, like any successful action, brings to light an injustice and inequality through public awareness. An action also involves the potential for personal sacrifice through arrest, detention, or in this case... Death.
Much like the images we have seen of Tibetan Monks who set themselves on fire in one final act of protest, Cox so too has made a statement. A person who had been so instrumental is reforming how those living with HIV/AIDS received medications stopped taking his own. This was the equivalent of cutting an artery and allowing it slowly bleed out. The cestation of his medications meant one thing... death would finally come for this wounded warrior. For all of the things Cox stood for, such as empirical data, quantifiable-numbers and research, it was the latent-affects of living through the plague era which proved just as detrimental as the virus.
Our understanding of the psychological and emotional damage caused as a result of surviving the plague are not well understood. How many more Spencer Cox's are out there? How many more are survivors who through their own actions hasten death through self-destructive behaviors or attitudes? An addiction to crystal meth was merely the means by way Spencer self-medicated. The addiction was only a symptom of a greater problem that is not isolated to just Spencer. A greater problem that is running rampant throughout the gay community and within the AIDS community. I myself have battled with an addiction to Crystal meth as well as other self-destructive patterns of behavior.
Why did he survive when so many others had died? The grief and grieving that seemingly over-shadowed being alive has been hidden away as a dark secret and is not spoken of near as often as it should be within our communities. What is focused on is improved drug therapies, longer life expectancies and "normal" lives however ignoring the catastrophic and debilitating emotional wreckage in plague-era patients is a travesty and it must be stopped.
Spencer Cox's death can be viewed as a murder which was sanctioned long ago but that only recently occurred or it can be viewed as the ultimate action and political statement to decry an injustice and inequality, only you can be the judge.