Checkup: Finding Humor in HIV
To help steer us toward the lighter side of a disease that used to be known as a death sentence, I asked River Huston to be our guide. She became a motivational speaker after her diagnosis of HIV and a bleeding disorder in the early 1990s.
RH: Itís really hard dating, but I think itís so important to disclose. When I moved to the country, it got really tough. These guys didnít know anything! I said, you know I have HIV, right? Theyíre like HIV, whatís that? I got HBO!
EM: Do you ever use the old line during a performance, "Iím dying up here"?
RH: No, no, when Iím not getting a laugh, my line is, "That was so funny last night in my room Ö alone.
EM: River's first gig was in a county jail. No matter how tough the audience was, from prisons to halfway houses to even high schools, she learned that she could make them cry. But she wanted to connect in a different way.
RH: I felt like I canít keep going out there and pouring my heart out and tearing the whole audience up and weíll all need therapy after. I gotta find a way to get this message out for them and for me in a way that can see it for what it is. Itís a virus in my bloodstream. Itís tragic, itís horrible. But life is life. Letís have a laugh.
EM: Are you deliberately trying to trivialize HIV and shrink its impact?
RH: You can say trivialize it, but the reality was, it wasnít that I was making it smaller Ė I was making it accessible. I was making it something they could swallow instead of something thatís so huge. Suddenly weíre all on the same level.
EM: And when it comes to audiences who also have the disease?
RH: The HIV/AIDS population, they want to laugh about it. They just didnít know how up to now. Everyone is so darned serious: they say, 'Youíre so brave, youíre so courageous.' Itís patronizing really, so giving them a way to laugh is the best thing I can do for them."
Iím Eric Metcalf, and I still havenít found the humor in baldness.