Have Americans Really Forgotten AIDS?!
We Need to Remember AIDS Lessons Learned During the Coronavirus Pandemic
by Hank Trout
In this time of confronting a deadly virus, I find it strangely amusing that many Americans are SO! SHOCKED! that the U.S. government has had such a woefully inadequate, too-little-too-late response to an exponentially growing viral pandemic.
Do I really have to remind people about our government’s response to another viral pandemic that started about forty years ago and is still raging in parts of the world?
Have Americans erased AIDS from their memories?!
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first reported on June 5, 1981, that five “active homosexuals” had been diagnosed with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in Los Angeles, California. Two of those men died. On July 4, 1981, the CDC reported that during the previous thirty months, twenty-six cases of Kaposi sarcoma had been diagnosed. Eight of those men died. There were 234 such deaths in the first year of the pandemic.
In 1982, the year that the term “AIDS” was coined, there were 853 deaths——the same year that President Reagan’s press secretary made jokes about AIDS at a press conference.
In 1983, the CDC reported 2,304 AIDS-related deaths.
In 1984, 4,251 AIDS-related deaths.
And President Reagan still had not even uttered the word “AIDS,” let alone done anything about it.
In 1985, 5,636 AIDS-related deaths, including actor Rock Hudson’s death, which prompted Reagan to mention AIDS for the first time!
It took four years and 13,278 AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. alone before our president could even mutter the fucking word “AIDS”!
As late as 1986, in the face of 2,906 more AIDS-related deaths that year and a cumulative 16,301 deaths in the U.S., “comedian” Bob Hope was still telling “jokes” about AIDS at a ceremony celebrating the refurbishing of the Statue of Liberty. “Did you hear that Lady Liberty has AIDS? Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry.”
Ronnie and Nancy thought that was just knee-slapping funny, while French President Mitterand and his wife and others looked on horrified.
I can think of nothing else that so adequately reflects our government’s response to AIDS.
From the very first days of the pandemic, those who had acquired HIV were shunned by the public, disowned and left to die by their families, damned to hell by religious leaders telling us that “AIDS is God’s punishment on homosexuals for their behaviors,” mistreated in clinics and hospitals (food trays left outside hospital room doors, doctors and dentists refusing to treat us), made the butt of seriously sick “jokes,” stigmatized even within our own communities, and made to feel that the virus was our fault.
How many times did we hear “At least AIDS is killing all the right people”?
Jump forward to 2020. Despite having recorded tens of millions of AIDS-related deaths worldwide, we still do not have a vaccine for HIV, we still do not have a cure for AIDS, and we still do not have a government that gives a shit.
So, spare me your surprise at the U.S. government’s slow, inadequate response to the Coronavirus pandemic! You’re shocked that the current administration refused 1.5-million Coronavirus test kits that were offered to the U.S. months ago by the World Health Organization? You’re surprised that the president told us not to worry, that COVID-19 is “just like the flu” and would just miraculously disappear in the warmer weather of April? You gasp in surprise that our medical professionals do not have adequate proper personal protective gear? You’re shocked at the unchecked growth of reported infections and deaths?
Such forgetfulness would be comical if it weren’t so deadly.
As a child, I was taught to respect and believe in our government, to revere our leaders for their wisdom and honesty, to believe that our leaders will always have our best interests at heart.
AIDS taught me that faith in our government is indeed childish!
I believe nothing that our government tells us, nothing—especially when there is a Republican at the helm of the ship of state. I stopped believing anything our government tells us almost forty years ago. And no level of malfeasance, dishonesty, lack of compassion, venality or outright criminality in our leaders surprises me anymore. Frankly, I’ve come to expect the worst of our government, and sadly, I am rarely disappointed in that expectation. I cannot believe in a government that didn’t care whether I lived or died.
Those of us most directly affected by the AIDS pandemic learned very early on that our government was not only indifferent to us but often downright hostile toward us. We realized that, facing rampant deaths in our community and an apathetic government and a hostile public, the only people who could help us was…US. Our communities coalesced, with help from good-hearted straight folks, particularly medical professionals, like never before in history. We formed community-based and community-led organizations and foundations to provide services to the sick and the worried well. The performers among us lent their talents to fundraisers that provided millions of dollars for the fight against the virus and the support of those who suffered from it. We set up buyers’ clubs to procure and distribute medications to the sick; we created (illegal) dispensaries to provide medical cannabis to patients for relief from pain and stress; we emulated Meals on Wheels and began large-scale feeding of our sick and home-bound. We ACTed UP and engaged in civil disobedience to demand research into and access to new medications—we educated ourselves and often became more knowledgeable about the virus and antiviral medications than the people allegedly treating us.
And for the first time that I’m aware of in LGBTQ history, gay men and lesbians recognized that we are one Tribe, as our lesbian sisters were among the first to offer care and compassion to their fallen brothers.
In short, we learned to love one another enough to take care of each other.
And now, facing another deadly pandemic—one that is most likely to be deadly for those among us with HIV-ravaged immune systems—we must again remember how to keep each other safe. We are one Tribe; one death among us diminishes us all.
Unlike during the AIDS pandemic, this time we know right now exactly what we need to do to protect each other from exposure to this new potentially deadly virus. First and most important, IGNORE anything and everything told us by the president, the vice president, and the Secretaries of State, HHS, and Treasury—instead, listen to Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx! Rather than comforting each other with hugs and hand-holding as we did before, we must maintain safe physical distance from other people for the duration to avoid inadvertently contracting or spreading the virus. (I’ve been using the Vulcan “live long and prosper” hand signal instead of hugs and handshakes.) No one likes to be told “Go wash your hands!” like a toddler, but we must do so, frequently, for at least twenty seconds (I’ve found it useful to sing a verse of “I Will Survive” to time my handwashing). Those of us who are able to help others financially during layoffs and loss of work hours should do so. And although we must remain physically distant from each other, we must all remain socially, emotionally connected. Write letters to out-of-town friends; engage folks on social media; phone the people in your social circle to see how they are, to ask if they need anything; set up Zoom or Skype “happy hours.”
We Elders in the Tribe, especially those of us who lived through the entirety of the AIDS pandemic, have learned the need to take care of our own. We know how to do it. We must educate those younger than us to do the same.
So, as we reluctantly keep our distance from each other for the duration and check up on each other, try not to despair. Remember, we’ve seen this movie before. New cast, new director, new plot——but the same old bullshit. As our government continues to lie to us, to obfuscate important information, to delay necessary steps to confront the pandemic, to shrug off its responsibility to us, to make racist attempts to “blame” others for the virus, and to let a science-denying mean-spirited politically-motivated racist hotelier to make decisions that affect us all——as long as our government continues to fail us so spectacularly——we have each other to rely on. And we know we can do just that.
Maybe other Americans have forgotten the lessons of the AIDS pandemic. We who bore the brunt of it can never forget.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.