The New York Times has published a powerful retrospective on the past 30 years of the global battle against AIDS. “Loss and Bravery: Intimate Snapshots From the First Decade of the AIDS Crisis Covering the tragic escalation of an epidemic” takes a close look back on some of the images and stories captured by 3 New York Times photographers and one reporter. Their emotive black and white photographs depict various men, women, and children living with AIDS, and the candid moments shared with their loved ones.
These photos serve as a time capsule that allows us to not only look back in memoriam of lives lost but also to recognize the advancements in medicine that today can reduce the risks of transmission and sustain the lives of those living with HIV and AIDS.
As a pre-teen in the 1980s at the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, my memories of the era are vivid. Life immediately became one of fear and inevitable shame about my sexuality. Though I was perhaps just 12 years old or so, I already knew I was “different.” I was gay, and it seemed so unfair and frightening to be a boy approaching puberty, on the brink of developing into a young, adult sexual being, just as a “plague” transmitted through “gay sex” was sent to earth to destroy the “evil homosexuals.”
That’s how the religious conservatives framed it at the time – a punishment from God. Remarkably, without real answers to the dilemma, some gay men actually accepted this narrative.
I can recall the old terminology of the mystery illness, reported in the news as the “gay cancer.” It was this “thing” that began to decimate gay men across the world, accentuated by the revelation that Hollywood leading man, Rock Hudson was gay and sick with the virus – which by then had come to be known as AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Fears in Hollywood grew from the possibility that Hudson might have infected his Dynasty co-star, Linda Evans with the illness with an on-screen kiss. At the time this caused national hysteria as kissing was deemed a plausible way of transmission. Linda remained HIV negative, but Rock Hudson would succumb to AIDS-related illness in 1985.
In Junior high as I began what would be my own coming-of-age sexual experimentation, I remember after any encounter, scanning my body in the mirror for peculiar moles or spots which could be indicative of an immune deficiency. I was so paranoid that I would convince myself after a sexual encounter that I had contracted AIDS – even if I had only just ground bodies or lightly kissed another boy. It was a constant state of fear compounded by the uncertainty of not knowing why gay men seemingly were the only ones affected.
I’d be remiss not to admit that in my own youth and naivete at the time, “a punishment from God” made sense according to my Grandmother’s bible. You know the whole Sodom and Gomorrah thing. It appeared to be coming to pass for real, as we became inundated with more and more haunting images of emaciated bodies, hallowed faces, some covered in lesions, too weak to walk or even stand, as families kept vigils by their bedside.
One of the most unforgettable memories of that era was seeing a video of Madonna, a burgeoning young music star, take on Congress to demand action as thousands of gay men continued to die of AIDS across the country, among them, her close friend, artist Keith Haring.
Then there is the flip side to that memory, equally as indelible – the President of the United States, whose job I thought it was to protect citizens, instead he remained silent, never addressing the AIDS epidemic until the numbers had risen to a level that could no longer be ignored.
As noted in the San Francisco Gate, “Reagan would ultimately address the issue of AIDS while president. His remarks came May 31, 1987 (near the end of his second term), at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington. When he spoke, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died. The disease had spread to 113 countries, with more than 50,000 cases.
The assessment has always been that the Reagan administration didn’t care about AIDS because it was killing gay people. I’m not sure where I heard this line, but it sums it up best, “If AIDS was killing grandmas and girl scouts Reagan would have done something a long time ago.” I’m inclined to agree.
This piece is an opinion piece by one Contributing Writer for Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of the magazine or other Contributing Writers.