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A choice to go on living

At first AIDS was thought of as just a "gay men's disease." There is no denying that the gay community has borne the brunt of the AIDS epidemic. Some 60 percent of AIDS cases have occurred in gay males.

AIDS brought the community lifestyle changes, and activism.

Gay AIDS victims have taken over corporate boardrooms and demonstrated at government offices and scientific meetings to push for more AIDS financing and quicker release of experimental drugs.

Partly in response, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has accelerated its testing programs and instituted "parallel track" testing, which allows AIDS patients to take experimental drugs outside the normal clinical trials.

Still, hopes for a vaccine or a final cure are 10 to 20 years off. Living with the disease is the only option for many.

Life on Fire Island in New York was beautiful in those long-ago summer days before.

Before the inexplicable swollen glands and night sweats. Before the "flu" that never went away. Before the appearance of those first purplish lesions.

The epidemiologists at the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the media would refer to them as "fast-track" gays: the young men who had sex with more partners in a month than most heterosexuals would in a lifetime. And often didn't know their partners' names.

George Wilson, who is now 43 and has spent every summer of his adult life on Fire Island, a barrier island south of Long Island, can recall those days before, when "that particular clique of Fire Island expressed itself as being the forerunner of everything, be it design, be it style, be it lifestyle, be it fashion, be it excessive sex. We were young, we were all beautiful, and people tried to cultivate that on every level they could."

Three of Wilson's close friends and former Fire Island Pines housemates died in the last two months of 1980. Between those first deaths and mid-1983, another dozen people he knew died. "By '84 it had killed a hundred people I knew." Then, in the late spring of 1985, Wilson learned he was HIV-positive.

"I knew at that moment that I had two choices: Either to live or to die. And I chose not to die. Part of that choosing to live is to go through whatever I could to heal all those things that were going to bring on an early death, or a death in which I would be closed down and inaccessible to my real life. So that took the form of getting off drugs, getting sober."

Wilson says he learned from support groups that being HIV-positive is not synonymous with dying. "It was very profound. I had the option to choose to live."

Now, says Wilson, "things are just as good" as they were in those days and years before. "What has happened within the gay community is people have attempted to heal themselves, and in that healing they have gotten much closer together on a level that is so much bigger and so much closer than being beautiful, having the best lovers, having the greatest sex or having the most drugs. People have for the most part let that go.

"Yes, AIDS is a terrible thing. But the good news out of it is it has brought people together as human beings and has allowed them to see the possibility of their own personal healing: healing of the spirit, healing of the body, healing of relationships and healing of a relationship with one's own self."

_ Information from Newsday, AP and Reuters was used in this report.