So, It’s World AIDS Day

Today is some sort of day of commemoration – I always wonder about such things. It’s World AIDS Day, when we’re all supposed to get more aware or something. And I think back to what I know of this, for I was there at the beginning, and have seen the whole thing unfold. There are many aspects to HIV – AIDS that are sort of forgotten in this big palooza – and today the disease is far different both here in the US and around the world. Much is known now, much can be done, much is being done, even a vaccine is within reach, apparently. So is perhaps a cure. There’s much talk in the scientific circles. And of course, there’s the politics.

I note that it is often said “Ronald Reagan never mentioned AIDS until 1987.” Yes, well, no, I guess he did not. And so what? The reality is that there was no AIDS until 1985, even if the term was coined a bit earlier, for until that year it was still known widely as “GRID” – or Gay Related Immune Deficiency. And even that was a brief term, come about in oh, late 1981, early 1982. And gone so soon. In the beginning, when I saw it first, it had no name. It was merely: death. “He died.” That’s what we said. “Of what?” we’d ask. “No one knows.” How could they? A healthy 20-something one week, and dead the next. It was quick, for many. Lingering for others.

Ah, but Reagan, one thing he did do, without fanfare, was pump money into the research. Though we must put the whole thing into the times. It was a time just 10 years after Stonewall. Gays were still criminals and psychotic in most of the land. Oh, even if some laws were gone, and “homosexuality” was removed from the DSM, it was plugged back in as “Gender Identity Disorder” – let us not forget that bit of terminology change. Now, instead of being psychotic in some fashion for being gay, it was because we were gender confused, oh yes. That was (even still is,) the mindset. In New York, “sodomy” – or “sissy smooching” was still illegal, a felony even. Bar raids were still happening. Gay magazines were still being seized by the USPS and other authorities, gay groups denied official recognition as 501c(3)s and such, and more. Oh, it was still brutal. Why, many heteros thought AIDS was wonderful, it would kill off all the gays. What anyone thought Reagan could say about this whole complexity of gays and GRID and AIDS I don’t know, I truly don’t.

The money and research, though, that was important, and that flowed like a river of honey, and within those few first years enormous efforts were done, here in the US and abroad, and something was done and found and proved and drugs in the offing, but none for another 10 years or so. Depends on how one counts it. I didn’t need a speech, I needed the research – I got what I wanted.

Yes, in the USA it seemed at first that only gay men got it. So it was “retribution” by God or something. Why He took so long to do something, for there was no AIDS for millennia before, while there were gay folks, I don’t know; I’ve never heard a reason given. Perhaps they have none. But it wasn’t recognized that AIDS flourished in Africa, too. Which is where it seems to have come from, from heterosexuals, of course. And well, one or two on the down low, as it’s called, forced there by societal convention – many a gay man hid behind the wife, just for the sanity and to keep a job. It was known by all, usually, but the pretend was apparently more comforting than the reality. Well, yes, gay men got it by the thousands, and they died by the thousands. I know my share of the dearly departed.

Oh we’d sit in the bar and wonder who would be next. By the next month, sometimes even the next week, we’d know – for one more was missing from the bar, the Ninth Circle, where I hung out. It was like 10 Little Indians, one by one we were disappearing. Rather strange, too, that someone would look robust on Tuesday, and by the following Tuesday we’d be planning a memorial. I noticed something that is not often said, for it seems to weird, and not being studied, it’s anecdotal: the fair haired went first – those with Irish and Scots last names, they died quickly. The Hispanics went quickly too. The Germanic set was the next in line, they took longer. The Italians and Greeks, the more south in Europe they hailed from, they lingered. But those with Northeastern European heritage, they were the last to die, if they did at all. Many survived. I’d say, anecdotal only, with no evidence whatsoever, but merely a good memory of those who make the news as long surviving, they are all of Eastern European heritage to some degree or another. It’s strange, but I think it’s worthy of a closer look, just to see if true, then to see why, if it is true.

Meanwhile, what did we who lived do? Well, we set up a social service system, a phone tree, food banks, rent sales – we did what Americans do – we organized into the self-help and community cooperation, and the selfishness that inhabits the American psyche and we did what needed doing. We went and brought food to those no longer able to cook. We cleaned apartments for those too weak to move. We just sat and listened to guys in their last days. We organized their things; they, knowing they would die soon, they wanted to leave something more than just a pile of stuff. We took care of last letters, and last wishes, and we tried to make the last days as good as we could. There was no Gay Men’s Health Crisis – there was no social service organization, no AIDS groups, no nothing.

No, there was no government programs, no help, no church groups come to assist, nothing really. There was no one who would lift a finger, except maybe, oddly, the scientists at the CDC and NIH and the university hospitals that were given the money by Reagan, sometimes sliding around the Congress, to find out what was going on. Even if their motive was to contain it to the gay community, they couldn’t help but find out the cause and stop the slaughter. But we guys there, in the Ninth Circle, we set up things like “God’s Love, We Deliver” – which cooked foods and brought them to the dying. I would print up fliers for the campaign at work, too.

And when it was called GRID I can confess that I and some others thought it rather intriguing the concept that only gay men could get this disease – for that meant that there had to be something genetic to gayness, something Tay-Sachs like – which is a disease that only hits Ashkenazi Jews, strangely. Yes, it was sort of a weird price to consider paying for proof of genetics, which would rip apart all the other arguments for our existence – usually dependent on “evil” “choice” and “sin” and “sickness” and other negative ideas. But, no, HIV and AIDS wasn’t just for gay folks. We just got it first here. But now, well, now in America gay men make up an ever decreasing amount of the caseload. And yet, despite all the fears about it, still something like only a 1,000,000 have it, out of 320 million. And it costs about $1 billion, though I could say $2 billion if we consider peripherals, and thus well within the amount of tax dollars that gay folks pay – we cover our own costs, if you will.

And soon, if the trend continues, virtually no gay man will get it. And those with it will live out their lives, and then, that’s it, no more AIDS for gays. There’s nothing inherent in gayness or gay sex that leads to AIDS at all. If that was true, it would have been around for centuries, and that’s not the case. Nor would it have surfaced so suddenly, virulently, in a few places at one time. No, it’s just a thing which got out of control – though there’s a reason that is not often explored, or even suggested. Seems we are shy about talking about some reality. And that’s because of the trajectory of the rights for gays movement, also known as Gay Rights.

Gay men were so repressed for so long that indeed we were hidden and scared. And then, after 1969, and into the 1970s we came out as never before. And yes, we engaged in irrational exuberance; ye old hundreds of sex partners. (though, that too is overblown, from a few sex fiends to us all, not to mention, even the ballyhooed “200 partners in a lifetime” is not many a year.) But what a dash of freedom we did experience. And yes, we went hog wild sex wise, with no more fear of arrest, and yet, no guidance either. And after such repression, it seemed almost party time. So we, well, so we partied. Now, no one then, and not even today, really pushes the young gay man grows up to meet his swain, save his virginity and get married and settle down shtick – yet. But it’s coming. And more and more young gay men are indeed getting, um, “married” in some fashion. The trajectory of repression to hedonism to conventional couples and settling down is making its arc. The whole go out to get laid bit is long gone. Now guys want dinner and a movie followed by a picket fence. Back in the 1970s and 1980s a gay bar was the only place we could go and be ourselves – now it seems we can wander about as casually as the heterosexuals.

And there’s more a push towards marriage, and boyfriends, and couples, and settling down and responsibilities, and not being so randy – the repression so lessened, that young gay men are comfortable taking their time in finding the right guy – but back in the mid 1970s, when I first started to go out to the Ninth Circle, there was such a new found freedom that well, yes, we had fun. Way too much, apparently, as AIDS indicates. But those days are gone, however much that they must be acknowledged. Gay marriage will, not so strangely, actually push even more gay men to tie the knot and not, um, grab the end of any rope hanging around. So I see AIDS disappearing from the gay population. Not completely, for it’s becoming drug-needle sharing that is spreading the thing, and there’s still going to be some gays who are doing that.

Still, this thesis I have of the trajectory of the way the gay community comported itself over time, and the way GRID then AIDS changed things, coupled with the way the gay acceptance levels by heteros, up to and including gay marriage, has colored the history of AIDS in a way that is not often spoken about, and is altering the way gay men fit in our society, well, that’s something bigger than a blog post.

Still, on this AIDS day, I can recall the oh, 100 or so friends, bar buddies and acquaintances that died between 1980 and 1990 – and the 100s more I didn’t really know but could see gone. I think of them, and that loss, and I can get wistful and sad. Yet I can be happy in thinking that the situation of 1980 and 2012 are so different, too. And by 2040 or so, when I’m 90, it’ll be even better, and we probably won’t be having this confounded discussion, but instead just say “That’s Jim and his boyfriend Michael,” and no one will give a dang but to say “Aw, aren’t they happy together.” And this entire AIDS thing will be but a memory of a harsh slap during heady times as gay Americans came to enjoy the fruits of liberty as much as anyone else.

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