“The day might come along that we see an end to HIV/AIDS,” O’Neill says, “but if we don’t change how we fundamentally interact with and respect each other, there will be something else down the road.”
D.J. Steedley, an ex-Marine and current bartender at Number 9 on P Street NW, tested positive in August after having unprotected sex with someone he trusted but who didn’t know his status.
“If a guy is positive and the question is not asked, he’s not necessarily going to tell,” says Steedley, 30. “You can get comfortable with anything, and your guard goes down.”
Steedley is the modern face of the epidemic. Open about his status, he is physically fit, in some ways healthier than he was before and on a clinical trial through the National Institutes of Health that requires four pills a day and a certain level of discipline and caution, likely for the rest of his life.
His medical condition is a far cry from that of John Willig, the man who became the District’s first de facto spokesman at the Lisner forum, but Steedley is still metaphysically tethered to that era — as are all of us, as citizens of a city with an epidemic.
Willig, as one of the earliest infected, was repeatedly tested and treated at NIH. During one session, he laid still for three hours while tubes were inserted into slits on the tops of his feet, as radioactive tracers pumped through his lymphatic system. He was an important part of the District’s response to the epidemic, and a tiny part of the early research that laid the groundwork for the first antibody test, which would enable the first antiretroviral therapy, which led to the combination treatment and current medication regimens that are, culturally, both a blessing and a curse. People are living, and living well. The virus has almost gone invisible again, like in the early days.
Although some of us don’t know what the early days were like. We weren’t there. We didn’t live through it. We don’t ever want to have to.
In a June 1983 interview with The Post, Willig was optimistic. His only symptoms were skin lesions. His boyfriend likened AIDS to “a little hill we have to climb over.”
Three years after that, John Herman Willig Jr. died of AIDS at George Washington University Hospital.
An AIDS memorial quilt bearing his name features a rainbow, a gold cross and a flight of balloons rising near the Washington Monument. The quilt was scheduled to be laid out with hundreds of others on the Mall on Saturday, but rain prevented it. The quilt will remain stored at the Mall until Wednesday, in case anyone asks to see it.
Editor’s Note, July 25: This story includes interviews in text and video with D.J. Steedley, who was described in the story as “the modern face of the [AIDS] epidemic.” Following publication, The Post learned that Steedley signed a contract in June with a production company that specializes in filming and distributing videos that depict unprotected sex. This information was germane to the story and should have been included.