A Terrifying Era: The First Five Years of AIDS

When my novel Running in Bed was published last year, one commentator questioned whether the world needed another book about AIDS. Fortunately the other reviews were more enthusiastic, and a compelling new show opening today at the New-York Historical Society, titled "AIDS in New York: The First Five Years" (running June 7 through September 15), answers that question with a resounding "yes."

It's a small exhibit, and for men of my generation who lived through that era, it can even seem a bit trivial, skimming the surface of what was surely the most terrifying time of our lives. But in these days when gay people seem to be everywhere, it's easy to forget just how marginalized gay Americans were just three decades ago.

Even in the years after Stonewall, the media still portrayed us as being on the fringes of normal society -- when they covered us at all. For young gay people coming of age at that time, there were almost no gay role models. No one had ever heard of or spoke about happy, successful gay people. In families, gay people stayed hidden: the aunt with her live-in "friend," or the uncle who never married. Oh, yes, the mainstream media covered the annual pride marches in those years following Stonewall, but almost always accompanied by images of drag queens and "dykes on bikes" so as not to shatter any decades-old stereotypes. As when I was growing up, most news stories reported on gay people only when they were victims of crimes or when they were being arrested and carted off to jail.

I moved to New York City in 1974, living in the attic apartment of a brownstone in Greenwich Village. Somehow I managed to stay in the closet for another three years, and when I did come out, New York's gay community was still basking in the golden glow of Stonewall. The rest of the world still may not have been welcoming, but in those early days of the city's nascent openly gay community, it was an exuberant time.

That all came crashing down in 1981, on the first day of Fourth of July weekend, when a small story buried in The New York Times announced "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals." That was the very first story about what we now know as AIDS to ever appear in The New York Times.

The article is prominently displayed in the New-York Historical Society exhibit, as it should be. I doubt many of my generation of gay men will ever forget when we first heard about that story. And the curators of the exhibition have done an admirable job of collecting notable documents and ephemera from that period.

What's missing, though, is a communication of the absolute terror of those first five years of AIDS for those who lived through it. Maybe there is no way to communicate what gay Americans went through in those days. There was no test for HIV in those first years (that didn't get approved by the FDA until 1985), so as we watched our friends get sick and die, no one had any idea who was infected and who wasn't.

I was at the beach one weekend with a friend, a strikingly handsome 25-year-old, who had a bad cough. The next weekend he was in the hospital, totally isolated. And by the end of the following week, he was dead. Even dying was complicated. Since everyone was still so closeted, many gay people were totally isolated from families and coworkers. Reaching out was fraught with peril, since even if someone recovered, it was completely legal to fire someone for being gay (protection from that injustice didn't come to the state of New York until 2003). As late as 1987, The New York Times reported that many funeral directors in New York City still refused to touch patients who had died of AIDS.

Not only was there no test to determine who was infected, but in those early years there was no reliable information on how the virus was spread. (There wasn't even certainty it was a virus.) Instead, the "four H" risk groups -- homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians --were quickly publicized. And the media conveniently reassured people that the "general population" didn't appear to be at risk.

Looking back now as we inevitably move toward same-sex marriage and full recognition of gay equality in America, one can't help wondering if the tragedy of AIDS didn't propel much of this rapid social progress. Suddenly people were forced to accept that there were gay sons, daughters, brothers and sisters in their families. And the guy down the hall who always came to the company parties alone wasn't exactly worried about finding the right girl.

Have we heard too much about AIDS in America? It's an interesting question to visit this week as we observe the anniversary of D-Day in World War II. How many books have been written about World War II? How many movies are still being made and remade? How much time is spent in high school history textbooks about that? World War II defined a generation of Americans. And so did AIDS. We can't hear too much about it, and there are still many stories yet to be told.

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