There’s very little I remember about June 1981. I turned nine that summer and all I can recall is that my family was living in a rental home because the previous November our house had burned down. As an eight year old, I thought a catastrophic wildfire was the most tragic thing that could happen to someone. Little did I know what the next three decades would bring for me and the community I’d yet to find.
June 5, 1981 marked the first official reporting of what would become the AIDS epidemic. The CDC published a “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” that detailed the cases of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia among five gay men in Los Angeles. This was the start of it all, but gay men at that time had no inkling of what the next 36 years would bring. The ’80s were just beginning and it seemed the start of a new era. Sure, Reagan had just swept into office but the gay community had so much hope and many thought that our time had come.
I often think back on the final scenes of groundbreaking movie Making Love from 1982. It was the first big studio film about homosexuality and one of the many reasons it was historic was because it didn’t end with the murder or suicide of the gay character. The gay character actually got a happy ending. The movie jumps forward to the mid ’80s and the gay character is happy and living in New York — not a hint of the plague that ravaged gay New York in the mid ’80s. The ending represents all the hopes we had for gays before the epidemic hit.
It’s heartbreaking to think of the bright future that was imagined in contrast to the utter devastation that followed. Ironically another movie in the mid ’80s impacted my hopes for my future, the movie As Is.
As Is came out five years into the epidemic and I was able to catch it on cable in the privacy of my teenage bedroom. It gave me one of the first depictions I saw of gay men and AIDS and it scared me to death. It scared me because even though I wasn’t able to call myself gay yet I saw myself reflected in these two gay men.
When the boyfriend in the film discovers a KS lesion on his lover’s back, I rushed to the mirror to inspect my own back because I feared I might have a lesion too. I hadn’t even had sex yet but I knew I liked other boys and this disease was killing boys who like boy — boys like me.
From that moment on, HIV was a part of my life. It haunted my adolescence and young adulthood like the ghost of someone I’d never met. For me, like many men of my generation, getting HIV wasn’t a matter of if but a matter of when. So when it finally happened, at age 23, I felt haunted no more. That ghost became flesh and bone as part of me, a gay man living with HIV.
I’ve been positive for 21 years, but we’ve all been living with this epidemic for 36 years. This epidemic took so many lives and wrought such horrors on our community. It exposed people’s hatred and cruelty, such as when men were denied housing and employment or bodies were turned away from funeral homes. It also magnified numerous structural issues like homophobia, racism, sexism and poverty, as gay men of color and trans women continue to be the communities most severely impacted by HIV.
It nearly broke our community. But we survived because this epidemic also revealed our compassion, dignity and our unflinching determination to fight for our lives and the lives of those around us.
We now find ourselves at a critical juncture in this epidemic. The crisis years of the ’80s are behind us and scientific advancements in treatment and prevention, like PrEP and undetectability, have radically changed our relationship to this disease. We are living longer and healthier lives with more options for prevention available.
But all of our advancements are now at risk. It’s very likely we will see drastic cuts to research, treatment and prevention. The current administration is openly hostile to the LGBT community, immigrants and people of color. Our hope for a better future is in danger.
We’ve been here before. We have 36 years of pain and loss, struggle and grief, courage and triumph to learn from. We’ve had three decades of preparation to get us ready for our current battle. We are stronger than we’ve ever been and we will not forget. We will not give in. We will not go back. We will continue to fight for our future.
(Featured image by jcarillet via iStock Photography)