Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The beginning

We now know that HIV originated in Africa, quite possibly as long as 100 years ago based on one recent estimate, definitely before 1959, as HIV has been found in a blood sample preserved from an African man who died in that year.

However, no-one was aware of the disease we now call AIDS until it surfaced in the United States, in 1981. Africans back then got sick and died all the time of who knows what, and nobody outside of their communities even noticed. Here in the United States, however, we had advanced health care and public health systems, and mechanisms for reporting and sharing information about unusual events.

In 1978 and again in 1980, I was in charge of stage security for Gay Pride day in Washington, D.C. Really! Even though I am a person of heterosexuality, this came about because of my friendship with Robert Belanger, a prominent gay activist. Bob, who I have written about here before, was an early member of the Mattachine Society, and he was the society's second president, succeeding founder Frank Kameny after an ideological schism. Despite their differences back in the day, Bob had nothing but respect for Dr. Kameny and always spoke of him with admiration. (Google those names if you're interested in knowing more -- a ton of info will pop right up.)

Anyway, the point is, I encountered the gay movement at a point when the prevailing mood was exuberant celebration. Kameny and Mattachine had at first worked in the shadows, then stepped forward into the light in a small way, in a mode of protest. But by 1980, tens of thousands of people paraded to Rock Creek Park and held, not a protest rally, but a party. The highlight of the day was not a political speech, but a performance by the drag queen Dana Terrell, and the police, who used to beat up transvestites, escorted her(?) into the party.

Then, in 1981, doctors noticed an outbreak of an unusual cancer, called Kaposi's Sarcoma, among gay men in New York and San Francisco, while emergency rooms suddenly saw young men coming in with intractable fevers and a disease seen only in people with defective immune systems, called Pneumocystis pneumonia. The Centers for Disease Control labeled this complex of symptoms Gay Related Immune Disorder. The mysterious gay plague had started.


C. Corax said...

How do you feel about how far research has come in that time?

Cervantes said...

We'll get to that . . .

kathy a. said...

you've had a front-row seat for the entire unfolding phenomenon, then, both socially and medically.

stage security! now, that is a side of you that i didn't know about at all, but it's wonderful. i'm a big believer in the idea that humans are complex, and that experiences one might never imagine will be useful in the future turn out to be so.