Before AIDS: Was It Really a Naughty and Undisciplined Time?

SAN DIEGO, CA - AUGUST 13: Members of Act Up stage a protest in front of the Convention center, protesting GOP policies on AI
SAN DIEGO, CA - AUGUST 13: Members of Act Up stage a protest in front of the Convention center, protesting GOP policies on AIDS awareness and Gay rights. (Photo by Tom Herde/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

When AIDS became a full blown epidemic in 1981-82, times were so frightening that many wished that they could just fall asleep and then wake up when it was over. The fact that there were more questions than answers regarding the virus meant that every form of intimacy had to be questioned, from a simple kiss to more complicated forms of personal interaction.

I first heard of AIDS on a street in Center City from a sometime acquaintance named Henry, an RN who sometimes walked the streets dressed as a drag queen or a Catholic nun. Henry, his eyes as big as saucers, said, "They just found out that gay sex causes the brain to rot." The look in his eyes was one of sheer terror although I did not believe him. I assumed that his overly dramatic pronouncement was just another one of his sick jokes..

Henry told me he read about the new disease in The New England Journal of Medicine. This was some weeks before the iconic New York Times article about a strange gay cancer.

Those early days for most gay men were quite confusing. The world was still basking in the libertine shadow of the 1970s, a naughty and sexually undisciplined time when the worst that could happen to a fellow was a case of the clap or syphillis. Yet even these misfortunes were easily fixed with a shot of penicillian.

Gay bathhouses in those days had health clinic nights when medical personnel offered free blood tests for STD's. It was standard procedure for customers to fly in and out of clinic nights, then don a towel and join in on the Satyricon fantasy. Some years before, in the city of Boston--where I came out at age 18--I found the perfect cure for years of teenage sexual celibacy: the gay bar, then an institution often raided by the police but at the same time frequented, in Boston at least, by the likes of Rudolf Nureyev, Robert Mitchim and even a very drunk Judy Garland. In Boston I'd take occasional Greyhound bus trips to Manhattan to the ritzy Continental baths where a brassy woman entertainer--a young unknown by the name of Bette Midler--inrterrupted the action with a lounge act that would soon go viral. Meanwhile, back in Boston in the Brahim townhouses of the well connected, there was the occasional public orgy, an after hours event that would be advertsied by loud calls just before the bars closed at 2 AM. (Don't think for a moment that 'Puritan" Boston was ever really puritan!)

I attended one orgy as an observer (remember Nora Ephron's Wallflower at the Orgy?) and met Alan Helms, then a twenty-six year old ex New York actor turned Boston University English progessor, who would go on to write a well known memoir of the period, Young Man from the Provinces, a book praised by Gore Vidal, Terrence McNally and Edmund White. On page 149 Helms relates how he met me at this orgy, referring to yours truly as a sweet young painter with a terrible, terrible case of acne. As it happened, I left the orgy not at all impressed by the piles of discombobulated bodies all around me. Roman orgies just weren't my style.

When it was confirmed that AIDS was transmitted by sexual contact, most people eliminated sexual promiscuity from their lives with the vehemence of conservative Republicans slashing Social Security.

A friend of mine in his mid-twenties on the verge of a successful ice skating career broke his back on the ice. I first met Steve while working at a hospital. Steve had just discovered that he was gay and wanted someone to talk to, so we became friends. Not many years later, Steve became one of the first men in Philadelphia to contract AIDS. Reality hit home in a big way for me when I saw a picture of him in a hospital bed on the front page of the Philadelphia Gay News.

The year was 1983, well before there was a test to detect the virus or even a drug to ward off secondary infections of the immune system. It took Steve about two years to die. Although he eventually left the hospital, he became a common sight on the streets of Center City, hobbling along on his crutches, an AIDS buddy by his side. His slow demise was difficult to process. I last saw him on Spruce Street one summer still on crutches eating a vanilla ice cream cone. Almost immediately after Steve's death, the names of the sick and deceased in the gay press seemed to quadruple. We were now in the grip of a plague, first known as Gay Cancer, then GRID (Gay Related Immune Defiency) and finally AIDS.

Albert Camus' novel The Plague had nothing on this thing. A disease caused by sex that eats the brain and that also puts ugly marks on your body was now causing some people to suggest that AIDS patients be quaranteened. What would this mean, I wondered: would all gay men be forced into medical camps?

It was a common pratice for men with AIDS to cover their KS spots with Clearasil tubes or Cover Girl maleup sticks but often the blemish scabs were so pronounced, it was impossible to cover them. In the grainy world of pornopgraphic films of the period, the reality of AIDS hit hard: Popular "actor" Eric Stryker, for instance, failed to hide the KS spots on his body despite a heavy application of makeup. Watching these old films, the effect is haunting. Viral infections like pneumonia, herpes and KS were secondary infections and they could only be treated with drugs that addresed these secondary symptons, but treating the immune system as a whole went unattended, meaning that the infections came back until they killed the patient. KS was particularily devastating in that it was external, a blatant Scarlet Letter that told the world that you had the plague. Prior to AIDS, KS was mostly a skin condition seen in the very old Eastern European or Mediteraran men. First described in 1872 by a Hungarian dermatologist named Moritz Kaposi, non-AIDS related KS was seen as being caused or affected by infrequent bathing, or as a condition that hit people with a history of asthma and allergies. To date, AIDS-related KS is rarely seen in children and is most prominent in Africa and other underdeveloped countries.

In the early days of the epidemic, health paranoia affected familes and destroyed relationships. In Philadelphia and elsewhere, many straight people no longer invited their gay friends to dinner, and some stopped seeing them altogether. Relatives stopped kissing their gay sons or siblings on the mouth, and even had worried looks on their faces when they kissed them on the cheeks, as if the virus hibernated in pores or blew out of the nostrils in the nose. City dentists began to be wary of their (suspected) gay patients and imagined weight loss when there was none. "You look awfully thin," my dentist said to all his unmarried male patients then, "Are you sure you are alright?"

Another old friend hailed from Ashville, North Carolina, birthplace of American novelist Thomas Wolfe. Bill and I met before the AIDS crisis when we were both 20 and had long hair and wore love beads. Bill was a med student at Harvard and liked telling stories about his lab dissections of sharks and how one shark fell from a shelf onto his lunch, ruining a good Liverwrust sandwich. Then he left for Washington state to do his residency and I never saw him again although for years we kept in touch through letters. Then suddenly the letters stopped. Years after this I met an elderly Seattle physican and asked him, on a hunch, if he had ever heard of a certain physician (I gave him Bill's full name). Not only had he heard of Bill, but he told me that he'd been a friend of Bill's for years and had even gone to parties in Bill's Washington state forest cabin, but that, tragically, Bill had died of AIDS some nine years before. I now understood why Bill had stopped writing to me.

The year 1996 saw the first large trials of triple therapy, namely Protease inhibitors being combined with various side drugs, that turned the disease around. These were the infamous cocktail drugs, sometimes amounting to thirty pills a day, While AZT killed the virus quickly, it caused the viral strains it didn't kill to multiply fast, thereby giving them immunity. The cocktails went after these strains and made sure they did not multiply, increasing a patient's chances of getting down to a viral load of zero, or the eradication of killer strains.

For many, this development came too late. When I interviewed novelist Paul Monette as he lay dying of AIDS in his Los Angteles home, he did nothing but scream through the phone about the heartlessness of then President Ronald Reagan and the pharmaceutical industry in not working to find a cure. Monette, the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1992 for his autobiography, Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story, wrote that the writing of this memoir "literally kept me alive after my AIDS diagnosis." He died at age 49, while hooked up to three intravenous tubes.

Thanks largely to the work of ACT UP, the pharmaceutical world was forced out its apathetic slumber and things began to change. Today, as one researcher recently told me, "HIV-AIDS is as easy to treat as hypertension."

But, tragically, so many lives were lost in the process...