Some quick thoughts on what Betty White taught me about HIV/AIDS

For a 13-year-old watching by himself in suburban New Jersey,”72 Hours” was a really big deal of a Golden Girls episode.

There will countless tributes pouring forth about Betty White and I can’t help but add a quick one to the St. Olaf mountain that is quickly (and deservedly) assembling.

The “72 Hours” episode of The Golden Girls has been widely deconstructed all over the interweb: that this sitcom about these brassy, older ladies in Miami should tackle in 1990 the subject of AIDS in the way that they did was pretty revolutionary for a prime-time audience.

In those 25 minutes, Betty White’s Rose Nylund is tested for HIV following the revelation that there might have been exposure during a recent blood transfusion.

Others can (and have) done a much better job than I ever could about the problematic parts of the episode where HIV is conflated with AIDS.

I just know that as a 13-year-old watching by himself in suburban New Jersey within spitting distance of the epidemic’s devastation in New York City: “72 Hours” was a really big deal.

At that point, I unquestionably knew I was gay, even as I was years away from saying the words in my head, much less out loud. Feeling adrift, I had thrown myself into as much exploration of LGBTQ+ culture as was available, secretly and covertly, and mostly at the local library.

This included getting my hands on a copy of the seminal classic “And the Band Played On.” The words of  Randy Shilts — who later became my aspirational hero of journalism — devastated me.

This was it. This was my future. With barely any representation of LGBTQ+ life in the media on which I could get my post-Bar-Mitzvah hands, the AIDS-ravaged, Kaposi sarcoma-dotted fate I read about in Shilts’ words was all I could envision.

It was scary. It was overwhelming. And it felt unfair. Like Rose Nylund, I kept thinking, “But I’m a good person!”

Then “72 Hours” aired.

The memory is vivid: I could tell you exactly where in my childhood home I sat when I watched, riveted, my eyes darting between the screen and the doorway to the television room, hoping neither my parents nor my siblings would enter during this experience..

Look, this wasn’t epiphanic television: I didn’t shut off the television and feel hope and joy about a future I didn’t understand.

But I know now, even if I didn’t understand then, that seeing that episode planted seeds where none had been there before, challenging a few of my assumptions.

I know now, even if I didn’t understand then, that hearing words spoken aloud started to break down barriers to give voice to my fears.

And I know now, even if I didn’t understand then, that watching  Betty White expertly run through a gamut of emotions gave me a grounding and humanity to navigate a part of LGBTQ+ culture that truly had me feeling lost.

And for that grounding and humanity, Betty White, I am truly thankful.

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