Today is World AIDS Day. It’s been 30 years since the first cluster of pneumocystis pneumonia in 5 gay men in Los Angeles was published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly, marking the first report in and the unofficial beginning of what would become the AIDS epidemic. It would go on to kill nearly 30 million people with no real signs of stopping. It devastated a generation of gay men who watched their friends and lovers go from young and healthy to sick and dying, sometimes within weeks. Many of the men who died were estranged from their families and their reconnection with their families required the double bombshell of revealing their sexual orientation as well as telling them they were dying.
Since I was a kid growing up in the 80s, the word AIDS was one that I only sort of understood. I remember hearing news reports about it, but I really didn’t pay that close of attention. I was blissfully unaware, so-to-speak. Sure, by the time I got to high school, I knew a lot about it. I knew you died if you got it. I knew it was spread by sex. I also knew how it had hit gay men – I still remember the news of Rock Hudson’s infection. Like many people in mainstream America, this was my first real exposure to the epidemic. But still, I lived in Iowa, in a relatively rural setting. AIDS was just not something that we dealt with. It was mostly just a blip on our radar.
I’ve told the story countless times on my blog about how in 1995, I read Randy Shilts’ And The Band Played On and how it literally changed my life. Although Shilts’ book is a biased account, it is meticulously researched and the best account we have of those early years of the AIDS epidemic. While I was reading the book, I realized how much I didn’t know. The roots of my LGBT advocacy really lies in that book, as I saw a group of people basically left to die because they were viewed as expendable and undesirable. The government gave the epidemic only tacit acknowledgement and the media didn’t cover it adequately. As Paul Monette said in Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, “It was often remarked acidly in West Hollywood that if AIDS had struck boy scouts first rather than gay men…it would have been covered like nuclear war.”
I’ve read the book several times since that winter of 1995. Every time I read it, I get mad all over again, just like I did the first time. I read it and wish I could time travel back to those days so that I could help do something – anything – even though (and because) those times of the epidemic were its most bleak. It saddens me beyond words that gay men of that time period lost their community and closest friends. I can’t even wrap my brain around what it would be like if my friends started dropping like flies from a disease that ravaged their body and mind. Andrew Holleran says that for him, the 80s were akin to a “very nice dinner party with friends, except some of them were taken out and shot while the rest of us were expected to go on eating.” It was a combination of prejudice, bigotry, denial and the time in which AIDS surfaced that led us to have those dark times as part of our history.
I reread And The Band Played On this summer since it had been a couple years since I’d last read it. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think to myself “what if AIDS had surfaced now instead of 30 years ago? How would the narrative have been different? Could the massive suffering and death have been at least partially averted?” We’ll never know, of course, but I had a few thoughts. Since homosexuality is no longer the taboo that it was in the early 80s, I don’t think that the prejudice that accompanied the disease and the lack of response on a federal level would have happened nearly to the degree that it did in the 80s, if at all. I also think that we would benefit from our more connected world. It’s hard to remember that e-mail and the internet weren’t always around. Communication would be better and I can just imagine the blogosphere erupting in an attempt to get information. The connecting of cases on the coasts and other countries would happen much faster. I also wonder about how much more quickly behaviors would change. In the book, many gay men refused to change their sexual practices and those that advocated safer sex were labeled as “self-hating” and “homophobic.” I think a lot of this was a reaction to the fact that it had only been about 10 years since the Stonewall riots and the dawn of gay liberation. Would this be diluted with a 40 year difference? As I said, the world will never know.
What a relief that AIDS is no longer a death sentence, thanks primarily to anti-retrovirals that can help keep the disease in check and to prevention programs. However, it is far from cured, and knowing what I know about viruses – and HIV in particular – I don’t know that a vaccine will ever happen nor do I think that drugs will ever totally cure infection. The drugs are also their own personal brand of awful, causing myriad side effects that can be awful to live with. The only way to wipe the disease out is by prevention and education.
I feel like on World AIDS Day, I should be looking to the future, but I always look back at what has happened. Perhaps it’s because I don’t ever want that to be forgotten, lest we be doomed to repeat it. This photo appeared in LIFE magazine and is commonly referred to as “the photo that brought AIDS home.” It is one of the most haunting photos from the early years of the epidemic. Never forget and never again.