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Gaffney discusses the HIV/AIDS epidemic, marriage inequality

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Gaffney discusses the HIV/AIDS epidemic, marriage inequality

Stuart Gaffney and his husband John Lewis. Creative Commons Photo: Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Stuart Gaffney and his husband John Lewis. Creative Commons Photo: Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Stuart Gaffney and his husband John Lewis. Creative Commons Photo: Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Stuart Gaffney and his husband John Lewis. Creative Commons Photo: Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Kate Jeffries, Online Editor

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On Thursday Nov. 1st, Stuart Gaffney gave a lunchtime talk in Spieker Ballroom about his personal activism during both the HIV/AIDS epidemic and marriage equality legislation. Gaffney and his partner John Lewis were plaintiffs in the California legal case for marriage equality in 2008. In addition, Gaffney is the current Marriage Equality USA National Communications Director, a columnist for the San Francisco Bay Times and is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

Gaffney brought both a personal and professional insight surrounding his experiences in activism and politics to Menlo. Gaffney was brought to Menlo by Upper School history teacher Matthew Nelson on behalf of Spectrum Club. Nelson and the leaders of Spectrum Club welcomed Gaffney to the stage and summarized his accomplishments. Gaffney opened his talk by addressing the recent tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. “There is always time to address recent tragedies,” Gaffney said. “Words have the power to incite violence or incite love.”

After he acknowledged present day issues, Gaffney walked the audience through chronologically ordered personal stories. “I always knew I was gay, but I never knew thought it was safe for me to come out,” Gaffney said. However, Gaffney decided to come out during his first year of college. “My freshmen year in college I went to a blood drive,” Gaffney said. “I had always wanted to be a blood donor. I just saw it as a great altruistic thing to do.” When Gaffney arrived to donate blood, he was asked to fill out a survey. One of the questions asked if he was a gay man, to which he answered yes. When the nurse saw that Gaffney had answered yes, she yelled across the room to another nurse asking if they were accepting “gay blood.” “I was mortified. I wanted to tell [the nurse that] the blood’s not gay.” Gaffney said.  Gaffney described the experience as his first contact with the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Initially, HIV/AIDS affected hemophiliacs in Haiti but the epidemic quickly spread to the United States. “There were young hemophiliacs that got [HIV] through blood transfusions and were then faced with [vicious parents and protestors] at school,” Gaffney said. “Its hard for me to replicate the paranoia people started to feel since people thought that anything could transmit the disease. People were afraid to shake hands.”

To conclude his talk, Gaffney discussed his personal life and his political activism through ACT UP: an activism group working to improve the lives of those with AIDS. He emphasized the importance of compassion during protests. He referenced how ACT UP turned their slogan of “Silence = Death” to “Action = Life” to emphasize the importance of keeping a positive outlook and actively standing up for one’s beliefs. Finally, Gaffney addressed his role in the legalization of same sex marriage in California. Gaffney recalled the terrifying feeling of his neighbors being able to vote on his future. However, the Supreme Court overturned the Gay Marriage ban on May 15, 2008 and Gaffney and his husband became one of the first legally married same-sex couples.

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Gaffney discusses the HIV/AIDS epidemic, marriage inequality