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18 in 1980: Memories of the Epidemic



[first published Dec. 2007]

When AIDS first appeared, here in Mississippi peoples attitudes were, like every social trend, it won't come here for another twenty years. Unfortunately for a lost generation, they were dead wrong. People started dying in 85. By 1990 the numbers were actually alarming.

In 82 & 83, the HIV virus hadn't even been isolated yet. It acted like a virus but science had never dealt with a retro-virus before. CDC nor anyone else in the medical community knew enough about HIV/AIDS to state anything definitive about it. It appeared to be a virus. It appeared to be sexually transmitted. It appeared to have a long incubation period before the immune system collapsed. It appeared that those who were infected were contagious from four to ten years before before they got sick.

However- at the time no one actually had the smoking gun. Various entities had pieces of the puzzle but bureaucratic rivalries and wrangling by Nobel prize hungry scientists kept many of these institutions from working together or even sharing data. No one in the various health bureaucracies would risk their reputation by making recommendations or issuing guidelines.

In 1984 I worked with an all volunteer team at the University of Southern Mississippi to create a mathematical model of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The results were frightening. Given a geometric growth rate and an average seven year contagious latency period, our model showed that by the 1990s, infections with HIV/AIDS would be in the 10's of millions in the United States alone. We had difficulty publishing our findings. Many journals wanted nothing to do with AIDS, some commented that it was alarmist while others accused us of fear mongering. I left USM in June of 1984 and the results were finally published by a European Infectious Diseases Journal in early 1985.

Worse yet, opportunists like Pat Robinson and Jerry Falwell were preaching that HIV/AIDS was the righteous wrath of an angry God inflicted on homosexuals who had no one to blame but themselves.

Culturally AIDS could not have happened at a worse time. The sexual liberation of the sixties came full circle in the seventies. Gay people were more accepted than at anytime before. Record numbers of people were leaving the closet with no intention of ever going back. Part of that liberation was a permissiveness about sex that by todays standards is shocking. Every big city (and even some smaller ones) had gay bars, caf?'s, gyms and spas where a great deal of high-risk behavior was going on. Gay people who had been browbeaten for generations for their sexual activities saw any attempt at closing these venues as a step back-wards. Especially considering in the early days of the epidemic, science offered no definitive answers.

The AIDS epidemic became a huge political football. Republicans wanted nothing to do with it. The sitting president, Ronald Reagen (80-88) did not even say the word AIDS in public until 1988- a full eight years and a half million dead into the epidemic. No issue suffered as much grandstanding from the right and glad-handing from the left. In the early years of the epidemic, congress and the President killed any research appropriation that had the word AIDS attached. CDC got smart and eventually asked for research money for emerging infectious diseases. The first few years CDC had less than $100,000 earmarked for AIDS research. Congress earmarked exactly NO funds for AIDS research- most of CDC's funds came from private collections. The CDC's first million dollar year for AIDS research was 1984. The director of the CDC was accused of lying to congress and almost sacked.

In the summer of 1984 my long-time partner and I had a conversation about AIDS and monogamy. Like many people, he didn't see the danger. No one was sick. We lived 2 hours away from each other and had never required monogamy from each other. I saw what was coming and there was simply no future in the status quo. We broke up.

When I graduated in 1986, AIDS deaths were hidden in the papers by a perverse code. The obituaries listed the cause of death. Not since the advent of anti-biotics had so many young men in their late teens to early thirties died of pneumonia. In those days Pneumocystic pneumonia was the primary killer. TB, cancer and Cryptococcal meningitis rounded out the top killers.

The late eighties and early nineties were a little slice of hell. I remember dreading reading the paper because you never knew who what show up dead. A friend, acquaintance or friend of friend. Maybe even that weird but cool guy that works at the one cool record store in town. You can't help but worry about your own status. As soon as there was a test, I took it. It took four weeks for it to come back. I got to the point to where I took a test once a quarter. No one knew how easy or difficult it was to get HIV in those days. It was like having a sniper or invisible stalker after you and your friends. You never knew who was going to disappear and show up dead in the papers a few weeks later. Living with this kind of fear is a horror: sleepless nights, stress, not being able to talk about it. So much death: too much to properly grieve for. The psychological consequences of the epidemic are painful and haunting, even for the healthy. Survivors like myself often ask why did I live when so many others died?

Much of the social progress made by gay people over the years "rolled back". The fear inspired by a dreaded, incurable mystery disease that was 100% fatal revived the bigotry that had been a thing of the past. Landlords didn't want gay tenets. Schools were afraid of HIV positive students. Many employers looked for any possible excuse to fire gay employees for fear that they would develop AIDS and wreak their health care budget.

Things are better today. Better medicine, better health care, etc. But HIV is still out there and we still can't cure it. It is now like a chronic disease that can be held in check by drugs but you are never really "cured". We as gay people have to understand that we live in a different world. It's not the seventies anymore. Free love ain't free. In fact, it can cost you everything.

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Thank you for this, James. It's the best description of the history of AIDS/HIV that I've read, concisely and informatively explaining how it affected the gay community. I'm always trying to become better informed and thanks to this blog, I am.

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