While Rome Burns…
Have We Gone Mad?
by John Francis Leonard

America, and the rest of the world, has been sorely tested for months now by the COVID-19 virus. It’s been rough going, for all of us, but we in the LGBT community have been through worse in recent history and I’d like to think that we learned some valuable lessons from that battle. Lessons about personal responsibility and caring for others, and I think we have, for the most part anyway. I myself turned fifty this year, and spent my formative years in New York City, ground zero for the AIDS epidemic. I’m so lucky now that the drugs we fought so hard to get have saved my life; others who are negative are lucky to have access to drugs such as PrEP, almost eliminating their chances of acquiring HIV. Just when we’re ready to take a deep breath and carry on safely with these tools, here comes another virus, a very different one, but one that can be deadly as well.

I was shocked and dismayed in March to learn that the Winter Party in Miami would take place as planned. I’m no stranger to a circuit party; I attended many of them in my twenties and thirties. At these parties, hundreds, even thousands, of shirtless men are packed into indoor events and pressed together, grinding and sweating, even more tightly on the crowded dance floor. Unlike HIV, COVID is an airborne virus and I’m no doctor or scientist, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a more likely place for its spread. It was early days when the party took place, but certainly those responsible for organizing this event knew better. As for the attendees, you don’t just put yourself at risk when you put yourself in certain situations, you risk the health of others. We weren’t the only ones, however; thousands of straight young people flocked to Florida for Spring Break as usual, bragging that a virus wouldn’t stop their partying.

Months of social distancing, mask wearing, and isolation later and we come to July’s 44th annual Fire Island invasion and we’re at it again. Never mind all the footage of people packing parties, pools, and beaches for Memorial Day; this is the LGBT community and this is New York, which was hit hard by the virus. No masks and hundreds of young, mostly gay men, packed together, no social distancing on the beaches, in homes and at the meat rack. Trust me, I’ve spent enough time in the Pines to know what goes on at the meat rack and it doesn’t happen six feet apart! I found myself furious, as well as embarrassed with and by my community once again. Have they learned nothing from recent history?

Then I did some soul searching. I put my judgment aside and thought about it. I live upstate now and, yes, we have been all under the same rules as the city. But it has been different for us. Talking to my friends in New York City, I learned that they were terrified; they felt they didn’t want to leave their homes. However, now, some people in the city are coming out in droves, packing outdoor spaces where they can. It’s a natural reaction, if not the wisest. But we’re all human. Another thought that came to mind was that the median age of those at those two events was probably twenty-five to thirty-five. They didn’t live through what my generation did. They didn’t see so many of their friends die young. If they are poz, they’re probably on meds that allow them to live a normal life span and make it impossible to transmit HIV to others.

Another thing I remembered was that my generation was hardly perfect. HIV transmission hardly ended when condom use began. I myself was safe for years until the late nineties when I began to be careless occasionally, and here I am…I put my own life at risk constantly from an endless need to party and get as off-my-face as I could. What I’m saying is none of us is perfect whether we’re gay, trans, cis, straight, bi, or binary. But still, as my tiresome, but often right, stepfather used to often say, ‘There’s a time and place for everything.’ With this virus still setting records across many states, let’s not get too complacent too fast. We’ve gotten through the past few months making sacrifices for the common good; what’s a few more?

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.