Memories of an Epidemic

Dying and dancing in the streets. What HIV and AIDS were like before treatment

About a year ago, somebody on Quora asked me what it was like to live in the gay ghetto during the height of the HIV epidemic before effective treatment became available.

I didn’t want to answer, because I didn’t want to stir up the old ghosts who still haunt me sometimes.

I spent a couple days not thinking about it. The memories came swirling back, anyway, mist blowing ashore off an icy lake.

This is what I wrote:

I don’t want to answer the question because it’s very painful to take myself back there. I was outside the US and mostly isolated from the epidemic for most of the 1980s.

I landed in New York in 1990 and found myself in the worst of it. It's so hard to describe.

Overwhelming fear.

Stubborn optimism.

Fierce fighting.

I lived and worked in Chelsea and Greenwich Village. Almost all my friends and coworkers were gay men.

Nobody knew who was next.

You have to understand that given the long incubation period and the even longer progression to illness, that many gay men were at risk because of sexual contact they'd had before they knew how to be safe.

The Sword of Damocles dangled everywhere.

We argued about whether we should be tested. Did we even want to know if the virus was slowly and relentlessly multiplying in our blood? What was the point of knowing?

There were funerals every damn day.

Purple blotches stained faces on every corner.

Refugees from the Bible Belt were terrified of going “home” to die. They wanted to stay with their friends as they drew their last breaths.

So the living tended the dying.

Cooke was my friend. He had been a fashion model. From somewhere inside that gaunt face peered the beautiful man he had once been. He was cheerful and friendly as he died. He didn't want to be a burden.

He didn't make it. Neither did Allen. Or Phillip. Or Antonio. Or Charles.

I have tears streaming down my cheeks as I remember them all.

I think of one sweet boy in particular. He was little more than a child when he gave up precautions and seroconverted on purpose. He couldn’t​ take it. He didn’t know how to live surrounded by all that death. He gave up and he died. The virus was merciful.

It took him fast.

We fought back, though. We educated ourselves and we organized. We cared for our friends first. We fed them, we nursed them, we bathed them, and we buried them.

We fought for money for research, and we fought for affordable​ treatment.

We lived all along. What else is there? We danced and sang. We partied in the streets. We roared our defiance into the darkness. We lived and we loved as we died.

Then one day it ended.

Just like that.

Effective treatment came out toward the end of the nineties. It was like a miracle. People who were almost dead recovered overnight.

We looked up and the sun burnt our eyes as it rose to end a long, dark night. We didn't know how to feel. We didn't know what to do next.

How do you recover from that?

Written by

Writer. Runner. Marine. Airman. Former LGBTQ and HIV activist. Former ActUpNY and Queer Nation. Polyglot. Middle-aged, uppity faggot. jamesfinnwrites@gmail.com

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