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Seasons of love, lessons of RENT

January 28, 2009

by keito

I recently got a chance to see the Broadway musical RENT on its farewell tour.  It’s a wonderful, high-energy show with almost non-stop singing and a lot of heart.

It’s also a figurative front-row seat to the AIDS epidemic in the 90s, and that’s stayed with me just as much as the catchy songs.

A modernization of the opera La Bohème, RENT replaces tuberculosis, the disease of its day in 1896, with AIDS, the disease of ours.  While we now have the phrase “long-term survivors” in our vocabulary, HIV was a short-term death sentence for the characters in RENT.  They find hope in living as though there is “no day but today,” knowing that their todays are quickly disappearing.  They worry about losing their dignity and being remembered.  They are just like you or I would be in the same situation, or maybe as some of you already are.

The worrisome part is this: in the 21st century it’s as though these types of characters have become cultural antiques.  Perhaps it is because we now have a better medical understanding of and better treatment options for HIV/AIDS, but, regardless, we have lost a general awareness of, and a sense of urgency in, AIDS education.

AIDS education hasn’t always been practiced in the best way, either.  I was in grade school for much of the 90s, when HIV/AIDS awareness seems to have peaked.  My sister, who went through the same school five years earlier, learned nothing about AIDS, while I learned almost too much.

My elementary school teachers gave us precautions that we were never to try the old practice of becoming “blood brothers”-making a small cut on the hand or forearm and pressing it against that of the person to whom you were swearing your undying friendship-because blood exchange carried the risk of incurable disease.  A friend also told me that she learned about HIV from MTV’s “get tested” commercials but barely learned anything about it school, except not to do “blood brothers” or (get this!) share drinks.  I, for one, ended up guarding all my paper cuts and nicks carefully, thinking that HIV could come from anyone, anywhere.

The teachers at my school may have educated us too much and too early, causing a lot of needless fear and misconceptions, but by the time I got to junior high and high school the sense of urgency behind AIDS awareness was gone.  AIDS education seemed to be evaporating from the curriculum, just when students were becoming sexually active and would need it the most.

Part of this may be because my high school generally taught abstinence, though I do not believe that this is an excuse for not discussing something that affects an estimated 1,039,000 people in the United States alone (this CDC figure is cumulative up to 2003).  Just because the last administration advocated abstinence-only teaching, does that mean that we shouldn’t be taught the facts, the means of prevention and importance of getting tested, or simply to understand the affect that HIV/AIDS has on people’s lives and the magnitude of the disease?  How can anyone ignore a health and social problem so big?

On top of all this, so much of AIDS awareness these days is focused on what’s happening in Africa instead-it’s becoming a disease that is falsely thought of as being “over there.”

Stereotyping is a huge factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS.  As anybody who’s watched Tom Hanks in Philadelphia Story knows, AIDS was considered to be a “gay plague” for a long time, even while cases of HIV acquired through blood transfusions were being diagnosed.  Even the CDC website, from which the statistics in this article were taken, estimates that “over half (53%) of [new HIV infections in 2006] occurred in gay and bisexual men.”

Over half.  That is, in fact, just over half.  That means that 47% of victims do not fit into that stereotypical category.  In terms of estimated cumulative cases (up till the most recent data in 2006), nearly as many people who contract HIV are white as are black, with lesser though still significant numbers of Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders.  AIDS can look like anybody-that cute bartender, the girl you always see in the café on campus or your brainy coworker-and that seems to be getting left out of our basic education.

RENT really shows its audience people living with HIV/AIDS in depth, intimately, sometimes joyously and, most importantly of all, without any judgment.  It puts a human face on AIDS for a wide audience; four of the main characters are HIV+.  They have made mistakes in life like everybody else, and they aren’t bad people.  They are, rather, characters that you fall in love with: Quiet Roger, huddled up with his guitar in a crappy apartment, refuses to go out while he staggers under the weight of his diagnosis; Collins, once a professor, has gotten it, too.

There’s little room for stereotypes or misconceptions while watching RENT, and that’s important, because information isn’t all that’s missing from our classrooms when it comes to HIV/AIDS education.  Combine RENT’s attitude and compassion with a better understanding and teaching of the facts and maybe then we’d have ourselves the start of a real HIV/AIDS curriculum.


CDC: HIV/AIDS: basic statistics and data used in this article, based on “HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report: Cases of HIV Infection and AIDS in the United States and Dependent Areas, 2006

One Comment
  1. Noreen permalink
    January 28, 2009 7:12 pm

    I totally agree with you. I went to Catholic school from K-12, and I don’t remember any sex ed whatsoever. I do remember having this video in 5th grade, when the boys watched one and the girls watched another. Then we got a goody bag with deodorant and pads and that kind of fun stuff. That was pretty much the extent of my sex ed. I went to see Rent my senior year of high school, and despite the fact that I knew all the songs by heart from owning the soundtrack, I didn’t even realize it was about HIV/AIDS until I saw the show! An embarrassing experience for me, but even more embarrassing to the state of sex ed, at least in my schools.

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