It Was like Living Through the End of the World

by David Marchionni

https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/cctp-802-spring2018/2018/05/04/the-art-of-the-aids-crisis-cautionary-oeuvres-from-the-1980s/

In all the history of homosexuality we have never been so close to death and extinction before. Many of us are dying or dead already.

Larry Kramer, 19831Karen Ocamb, “Larry Kramer’s Historic Essay: AIDS At 30,” Larry Kramer’s Historic Essay: AIDS At 30, The Bilerico Project, June 14, 2011, http://bilerico.lgbtqnation.com/2011/06/larry_kramers_historic_essay_aids_at_30.php.


It came out of nowhere. When the Centers for Disease Control published its June 5, 1981 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), it unintentionally inaugurated one of the darkest periods in American history: the AIDS crisis. The report, written by UCLA’s Michael Gottlieb, noted that between October 1980 and May 1981 five cases of the rare (and usually fatal) illness pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (traditionally found only in extremely immunosuppressed patients, and often referred to by the acronym PCP) appeared in what had previously been healthy young men in the Los Angeles area.2Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), p. 415. Gottlieb and the CDC further observed that all the young men in question were homosexual. Rechristened as “gay pneumonia”, PCP helped cement Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) as an exclusively gay issue in the national consciousness. While AIDS affected many, it utterly decimated gay America.3A point of clarification: In this text “gay” (such as in “gay America”) refers to male homosexuals. It has killed hundreds of thousands (448,060 by the year 2000 alone), claimed the lives of much of the gay rights movement’s leadership, triggered widespread anti-gay violence, and opened the door to entirely new forms of government-sponsored oppression and discrimination.4“HIV and AIDS — United States, 1981—2000,” HIV and AIDS — United States, 1981—2000, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 1, 2001, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5021a2.htm. Yet amidst such suffering, AIDS sparked a mass revolution. It radicalized gay activism, triggering a newfound wave of homosexual unity and mass protestation.

With the release of the July 3rd 1981 MMWR, the CDC acknowledged a new, rarely diagnosed illness (aside from PCP) was predominantly affecting homosexuals.5Michael B. Gregg, ed, “Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Pneumocystis Pneumonia Among Homosexual Men – New York City and California,” Morbidity And Mortality Weekly Report 30, no. 25 (1981), p. 305. Kaposi’s Sarcoma (abbreviated to KS) quickly became a media darling.6Gina Bright, Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic: A Story of Discrimination (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 77. Christened by the media as the “gay cancer,” KS caught the eye of the public due to its distinctive (and repulsive) skin lesions and its association with sex and homosexual deviancy. Few stories sell better than sex or fear, and the mysterious new GRID (Gay-related Immune Deficiency) offered both in equal measure. Media organizations large and small happily sensationalized the topic, claiming that the new malady would befall all who engaged in “risky” or immoral behavior. None other than The New York Times helped lead the charge, running numerous articles reporting that all infected patients were promiscuous homosexuals having sex with between fifteen and twenty anonymous men per night, and that the infamous gay bathhouses were the epicenter of the “Gay Plague.”7Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 416. The media frenzy only grew worse in 1983 following the realization that HIV could be transmitted via infected blood.8Dennis Altman, AIDS in the Mind of America, (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986), p. 74. Heterosexual Americans, now in the line of fire, feared for their safety. Conservative state legislatures profited from the media panic, using the momentum generated to pass draconian HIV-specific criminal laws. In total, thirty-three states would pass such targeted felony ordinances.9Teresa Wiltz, “HIV Crime Laws: Historical Relics or Public Safety Measures,” Pew Stateline, The Pew Charitable Trusts, September 6, 2017, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2017/09/06/hiv-crime-laws-historical-relics-or-public-safety-measures.

HIV/AIDS truly could not have come at a worse time. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 heralded a sweeping victory for the New Right’s Christian conservatism. Incensed by the progressivism of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Right claimed the Presidency and the Senate in the 1980 election, a year before American homosexuals began dying in droves. The New Right wasted no time ascribing blame. Consider Lawrence Lockman’s widely circulated 1986 book The AIDS Epidemic: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting your Family and Community from the Gay Plague. The conservative columnist (and eventual member of Maine’s House of Representatives) not only held “the gay lifestyle” responsible for bringing AIDS to American shores – reiterating the popular notion that homosexuals are “extremely filthy and disgusting as well as unhealthy” – but went further and attacked heterosexual patients as well, accusing them of cavorting with homosexuals and living sinful, debased lives.10Gina Bright, Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic, pp. 83-84. Alternatively, revisit the work of paleoconservative (traditionalist conservatives reacting against the rise of neoconservatism in the Republican Party) Patrick Buchanan.11Samuel Francis, “The Paleo Persuasion,” The American Conservative, December 16, 2002, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-paleo-persuasion/. The Republican columnist, commentator, and politician authored the widely-circulated “AIDS Disease: It’s Nature Striking Back”. Buchanan’s piece echoed many of his fellows in calling homosexuals both a moral and public health menace. He then boldly pushed onward, articulating a policy of nationwide segregation, one that would forcibly remove suspected AIDS patients from public life so as to protect ‘innocent’ heterosexual America.12Dennis Altman, AIDS in the Mind of America, p. 59. The widespread (and completely debunked) belief that AIDS could be spread by casual contact only made it easier for local and state governments to encourage blatantly discriminatory practices. Individuals with HIV/AIDS (and homosexuals more broadly) could be barred from public facilities and transport, expelled from their schools, evicted from their homes, fired from their work, profiled and quarantined by the police, discharged from the Armed Forces, and barred from donating blood. Meanwhile, the CDC understood as early as 1983 that AIDS was not transmissible via simple contact, proximity, or shared use of daily items.13Institute of Medicine (US) Committee to Study HIV Transmission Through Blood and Blood Products, “History of the Controversy,” HIV And the Blood Supply: An Analysis of Crisis Decisionmaking, U.S. National Library of Medicine, January 1, 1995, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK232419/. Yet regardless of both CDC and activist attempts to spread awareness within the general population, these novel forms of discrimination intensified.14Gina Bright, Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic, p. 94. 

Arguably, the worst effects of AIDS-based discrimination were experienced within the healthcare industry, the one realm of life exceedingly vital to people living with HIV. Physicians and nurses refused to treat or even touch patients. Orderlies refused to wash patients or change their clothes and dressings, leaving them to lie in their own filth and misery. Should a patient find their way to a clinic or emergency room, staff would simply ignore them until they either left out of frustration and shame, or simply expired. When patients did succumb to AIDS-related complications, morgue technicians and undertakers refused to handle their bodies, instead opting to throw corpses (dressings, bedsheets, and all) into heavy-duty garbage bags before requiring the friends or family of the deceased to remove them on their own.15Dennis Altman, AIDS in the Mind of America, p. 62. The paranoia reached such a level that medical facilities across the country refused to treat any individual of an “at-risk” group (often summarized as the 4Hs: homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians).16Gina Bright, Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic, p. 85. Due to the effects of media-sponsored paranoia, as well as hate speech, the 1980’s saw rates of violence against gay men and lesbians skyrocket.17William R. Greer, “VIOLENCE AGAINST HOMOSEXUALS RISING, GROUPS SEEKING WIDER PROTECTION SAY,” The New York Times, The New York Times, November 23, 1986, https://www.nytimes.com/1986/11/23/us/violence-against-homosexuals-rising-groups-seeking-wider-protection-say.html. Spurred on by AIDS-related panic and homophobia, the storming of gay neighborhoods and gay-aligned events grew more common.18William R. Greer, “VIOLENCE AGAINST HOMOSEXUALS RISING”, https://www.nytimes.com/1986/11/23/us/violence-against-homosexuals-rising-groups-seeking-wider-protection-say.html. Take a quiet Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, for example. That day bore witness to a gang of twenty-odd drunken teenagers gather at the edge of Sigmund Stern Grove. Wielding bats, sticks, and rocks, the mob screamed and shouted “Faggots got AIDS”, “Unclean” and “You’re diseased” whilst brutally assaulting gay and lesbian attendees of a community picnic organized by Dignity (a gay Catholic organization).19Dennis Altman, AIDS in the Mind of America, p. 69. Some Conservatives openly advocated for abhorrent measures of controlling the potentially-infected population. Conservative author William Buckley proposed that every HIV-positive American be mandatorily tattooed so as to make their status readily apparent.20Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 424. Meanwhile, Californian multimillionaire Lyndon LaRouche went one step further, organizing his Prevent AIDS Now Initiative Committee (PANIC) to promote an initiative on California’s 1986 ballot.21Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 424. He and his seven hundred thousand supporters sought to forcibly inter all people with AIDS in quarantined concentration camps, much the same way the nation had done to Americans of Japanese descent forty-four years earlier.

AIDS defined an entire generation. The specter of death hung like a cloud over the head of every LGBT American during the crisis years.22Perry N. Halkitis, The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience, (New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 1. Facing death and discrimination, impassioned activists such as Larry Kramer rose and tackled the problems born of the Crisis.23Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 422. By 1982, he found a number of similarly-minded allies.24Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 419. Bold new confrontational organizations such as ACT UP, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the AIDS Network all promoted revolutionary programs, ranging from caring for people with AIDS to engaging in campaigns of mass civil disobedience.25Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 419, p. 422. They looked after their own, and took the veritable life-and-death struggle gays faced on a daily basis into the homes of the nation through orchestrated church and television station invasions.26Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 436. In the face of not just their own mortality, but also the risk of reprisal at the hands of their neighbors or government, six hundred thousand gays and lesbians from all across the country gathered in the nation’s capital on October 11, 1987.27Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 428. The Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights saw the grief and rage of the community on full display, mourning the loss of over forty-one thousand fellow gays and lesbians to AIDS, and to protest a government that did nothing but watch them die.28Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution, p. 429. The unveiling of the AIDS Quilt at the National Mall on live television made for a stirring, lasting moment that exemplifies the best of civil resistance. The AIDS generation lived through one of the worst epidemics in modern history. All who survived have been scarred by it, but came out the other side more resilient and stronger as a community.29Perry Halkitis, The AIDS Generation, p. 1. While many had perished, their sacrifices would be remembered, and the survivors have continued to resist Christian conservative AIDS-related policies well into the modern day. 

Bibliography

Altman, Dennis. AIDS in the Mind of America. First ed. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986.

Bright, Gina M. Plague-Making and the AIDS Epidemic: A Story of Discrimination. First ed. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Faderman, Lillian. “Chapter 23: The Plague.” In The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, First Simon & Schuster hardcover ed. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Francis, Samuel. “The Paleo Persuasion.” The American Conservative, December 16, 2002. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-paleo-persuasion/.

Greer, William R. “VIOLENCE AGAINST HOMOSEXUALS RISING, GROUPS SEEKING WIDER PROTECTION SAY.” The New York Times. The New York Times, November 23, 1986. https://www.nytimes.com/1986/11/23/us/violence-against-homosexuals-rising-groups-seeking-wider-protection-say.html.

Gregg, Michael B, ed. “Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Pneumocystis Pneumonia Among Homosexual Men – New York City and California.” Morbidity And Mortality Weekly Report 30, no. 25 (July 3, 1981): 305–16. https://history.nih.gov/nihinownwords/assets/media/pdf/publications/MMWRJuly31981.pdf.

Halkitis, Perry N. The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

“HIV and AIDS — United States, 1981–2000.” HIV and AIDS — United States, 1981–2000. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 1, 2001. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5021a2.htm.

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee to Study HIV Transmission Through Blood and Blood Products. “History of the Controversy.” HIV And The Blood Supply: An Analysis Of Crisis Decisionmaking. U.S. National Library of Medicine, January 1, 1995. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK232419/.

Ocamb, Karen. “Larry Kramer’s Historic Essay: AIDS At 30.” Larry Kramer’s Historic Essay: AIDS At 30. The Bilerico Project, June 14, 2011. http://bilerico.lgbtqnation.com/2011/06/larry_kramers_historic_essay_aids_at_30.php.

Wiltz, Teresa. “HIV Crime Laws: Historical Relics or Public Safety Measures?” Pew Stateline. The Pew Charitable Trusts, September 6, 2017. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2017/09/06/hiv-crime-laws-historical-relics-or-public-safety-measures.