Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Plague Years

Doctors noted within a few months after the emergence of what they called GRID that gay men were not the only people affected. The mysterious disease showed up in injection drug users, recipients of blood transfusions, and some people who had none of these evident risk factors. Nevertheless, the epidemic -- which soon came to be called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS -- was associated in the public mind with homosexuality for many years.

And indeed, it did highly disproportionately affect gay men, as it still does in the U.S. today, to a lesser extent -- though not everywhere in the world. One of the most notable impacts of the epidemic was the transformation it wrought on gay culture in the U.S., and also on the relationship between the gay sub-culture and communities, and the rest of society.

I'm not an expert on this subject, which is complex and filled with controversy and polemic. I will just say that the community I interacted with at the celebration in 1980 was exuberant and also, for want of a better word, licentious. Released from literally centuries of being forced into the shadows, persecuted, marginalized, and criminalized for being who they were, gay people erupted like volcanoes of sexuality. HIV forced a reappraisal of sexual expression, and its social organization within the gay community. I believe there is a strong argument to be made that it at least accelerated, if not strongly determining, the evolution of gay institutions and activism toward the normalizing and integration of gay life and identity. Back in the 1980s, marriage and commitment and starting families were not high on the agenda. Now the right to marriage is the central demand of gay politics. The community had to confront and reconsider promiscuity, and social and economic institutions that were built around it; and redefine sexuality to include responsibility.

In the meantime, of course, a central focus of activism vis a vis the larger society became biomedical research, care for people living with the disease, and prevention of HIV transmission, all of which required as a necessary condition combatting the stigma associated with the disease, which in turn meant combatting the stigma associated with homosexuality. It was not enough for gay people to be out in their own communities and building their own institutions. They had to be able to draw on the same reserves of communal good will and social solidarity as every one else in the face of the crisis.

As we approach the 30th year of the epidemic in the U.S., we can honestly say that we have come a long way in that regard. The passage of Proposition 8 is a bitter defeat, to be sure, but 20 years ago it would have been unimaginable that it could even be an issue. Here in Massachusetts, that battle is over, and human rights and dignity are victorious. I'm sure we'll get there in the rest of the country in time -- although it is still true that justice too long delayed is justice denied. However, I doubt you'll find many people who will say it was worth it. I have met too many who remember those terrible years, when they buried one friend after another who had died in the awful way that HIV kills.

I myself lost friends, suddenly and cruelly, but my experience was nothing like that of gay men whose entire communities and social networks were devastated. Among my neighbors are a couple who moved from San Francisco to Boston because the associations were too painful to endure. I once interviewed a man living with HIV, one of those rare people called long term non-progressors whose immune system, for unclear reasons, is able to suppress the virus. He told me that living in New York in the 1980s, he had lost every single friend he had, and whenever he made new ones, they would die too. He lives in a kind of survivor's daze, unable to account for or accept his own existence.

Next: Science marches on

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