“What I Want You to Know About AIDS”
Glamour Magazine | May 1, 2011
Elizabeth Glaser’s son, Jake Glaser was recently interviewed by Glamour Magazine about his experiences growing up with AIDS. In the widely popular magazine for young women, Jake explained why it’s important that we remain committed to fighting the disease not just for his mother and sister but for children around the world.
My life has certainly not turned out the way I expected. But while tomorrow will bring what it will, today was glorious.”
These are words that my mother passed on to me. I live every day of my life by them. Our family story is, yes, a tearjerker, but it’s also a story of courage and inspiration—and it’s one that continues to this day.
In 1981 my mother, Elizabeth, unknowingly contracted the HIV virus from a tainted blood transfusion. She was an outgoing, graceful former schoolteacher, happily married to my dad, Paul Michael Glaser, who had starred in the TV series Starsky and Hutch. (He was Starsky.) Mom didn’t even realize she had HIV until my four-year-old sister, Ariel, a bright, angelic spirit, fell ill with mysterious stomach cramps in 1985. Doctors discovered she had HIV—and had gotten it from Mom’s breast milk. I was an infant then, and I too was soon diagnosed with HIV, the disease having been transmitted in utero.
Back then, almost no one understood anything about AIDS. Even some of the best-educated Americans believed they could get the disease just by touching someone who already had it. While some friends supported us, there were many others who turned away. Ariel’s preschool application was rejected, and she wasn’t invited to birthday parties. Even so, she never felt sorry for herself. She was full of joy. A few weeks before she died, at age seven, she lay in a hospital room, and though her eyesight was fading, she asked for crayons and a sheet of paper so she could draw a picture of flowers basking in the sun. Later she summed up what she had created: Life is beautiful.
My Mother, the Warrior
After Ariel’s funeral, my mother told my dad, “We are not going to sit here and be victims. We are going to do whatever we can to save other children.” Huddled at our dining room table, she and two of her best friends, Susie Zeegen and Susan DeLaurentis, started what would become the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation to fund research on children living with HIV and AIDS. Along the way, she gave countless speeches, hoping to break the stigma and fear that surrounded the disease. She was the first person to give a voice to children with HIV, and she helped the world gain a better understanding of AIDS. One of my favorite stories is of my mom standing onstage, taking a bite of a cookie and then handing the cookie to a friend, who took another bite. There were gasps from the audience.
When I think of all those groundbreaking steps my mother took 23 years ago, I am sometimes surprised we are still in this fight. But these are the facts: Every 35 minutes, a woman in this country is newly infected with HIV; almost one third of those new infections are in women under 30. That translates into approximately 280,000 women in the United States right now who are HIV positive—and to me, that is simply unacceptable.
We must remember that HIV is still with us, and as I know, it can be devastating.
In 1993 Mom got ill and spent the last year of her life being cared for at home. Because she didn’t want me to see her sick, she insisted that I go out and play with my friends rather than sit by her bed. I remember staring at the two French doors leading to her bedroom at the end of the hallway. They were closed. I wanted to run in, but I knew I couldn’t. She died in December 1994. I was 10 years old.
For a long time, I didn’t know how to grieve the loss of my mother and my sister. My father was always there for me, but with so much emotion inside and no idea how to deal with it, I began to rebel, flushing my own medications down the toilet. As I got older, I kept doing what I could to distract myself from the feelings I was having. It wasn’t until a good friend took my hand and helped me that I finally started my healing process.
Why We Can’t Give Up
After I finished high school in 2003, I lived in Idaho, where I worked as a fly-fishing guide and a landscaper. I always found tranquility in nature, and still do. But then came a Wednesday afternoon I’ll never forget. The then president of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation called me to ask if I was ready to be a part of what Mom had started. I packed my bags, and two days later I was there.
I’m now 26, and I spend a lot of time talking to young people about the foundation and about life in general; believe me, their energy is contagious. It is this generation, and future ones, that will finish my mom’s incredible work.
Not long ago, a friend of mine who is HIV positive gave birth to an HIV negative baby. It was one of the great moments of my life. I thought, Who knows whether that would have happened if it weren’t for what my mom did all those years ago to push for research on kids with AIDS? We’ve seen a lot of success, but in other parts of the world, more than 1,000 children are newly infected with HIV every day. We need to work harder to get that number to zero.
No matter how far medicine has progressed over the past 30 years, the best way to deal with HIV is not to get it. That means safe sex, which means condoms. It also means you have the perfect right to ask a guy if he’s ever been tested not only for HIV but for any STD. (You can always suggest the two of you get tested together. That way, you’re showing genuine support for your partner and not making him feel you’re suspicious of him. If he still doesn’t want to do it, then you need to walk away.)
When I meet a woman I think I want to have a relationship with, I tell her up front about my HIV status. It’s part of who I am, and I’m not ashamed of it. If she doesn’t want to accept me for who I am…well, the way I see it, I’m better off without her.
To this day, I remember all the great times I had with my mom and sister, and, yes, I still miss them every single day. But I will never forget the message they passed on, calling for the rest of us to rise to whatever challenge faces us, whatever the odds. I don’t want people to think this epidemic is going away. Mom and Ariel never gave up. They refused to be overwhelmed by fear. And to the very end, they took what looked like a tremendous negative and turned it into a positive. The best I can hope for myself and for everyone else is to live a life like theirs.
Jake Glaser is an ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which works in 17 countries around the world, providing prevention, care and treatment to nearly 12 million women over the past 10 years alone. To help reach even more women, give to pedaids.org.