1985: 745 Healthy Gay Men
Part VII of an Ongoing Chronicle of the First Fifteen Years of the AIDS Pandemic
by Bruce Ward
After returning to the mainland in August, 1984, I still had the healthy sexual appetite of a twenty-six year old, but I was too afraid of having any type of sex that would even remotely be deemed “unsafe”. I was as concerned about my own health and repeated exposure as I was about transmitting a possible virus to others. I became the super-duper conscientious King of super conscientiousness.
Because that was the end of sex as we knew it. The spontaneous combustion of two people doing whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted, in any way they wanted to do it. This had disappeared in New York City by the end of 1984.
The activists of ACT UP, which was formed a few years later, proclaimed SILENCE = DEATH as its media-savvy slogan. But the slogan for us all was also SEX = DEATH.
I returned to New York feeling healthy, with only the tiny pea-shaped node in my left lymph gland as a daily reminder that some kind of menacing activity was occurring within my body.
In the fall of 1984, the virus was isolated and identified as HTLV-III, but there was still no test for antibodies available to the general public. I kept myself busy with work, and tried as much as possible to keep dreaded thoughts out of my mind.
I had gone to Hawaii with the goal of writing a full-length play about the burgeoning epidemic, and I achieved my goal. Place of Understanding would be my last piece of writing for the next eight years. My workload as an AIDS educator and administrator, and the toll of the epidemic, became emotionally overwhelming.
In May, 1985, I was hired as a research interviewer for a Columbia University study that would span six years.
At that time, I knew five men who had died of AIDS.
John Martin, a thirty-one year old PhD in Psychology at Columbia, and his field researcher, Laura Dean, had designed a study in which a community-based sample of gay men would be interviewed every year for seven continuous years. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, and it was designed to statistically analyze the impact of the epidemic on gay men’s psychosocial lives, along with changes over the years in their sex and drug behaviors.
The main criterion for inclusion in the study was that the men had not been given an AIDS diagnosis by the time of their initial interview. By the spring of 1985, 745 “healthy” gay men, aged twenty to seventy-two, had been recruited for the study.
The interview could last anywhere between ninety minutes to three hours, depending upon the man’s sexual activities, drug use, health status, and friends lost.
Interviewers were paid per interview. I would take on as many as I could, sometimes two or three a day, traveling across the boroughs by subway to respondents’ homes.
I loved this job, and I was driven by it.
On May 23rd, I conducted the study’s first interview. As luck would have it, the respondent wanted to be interviewed in the research office at Columbia, instead of in his home. This gave John and Laura a chance to observe an interview in an actual clinical setting, after the years of preparation they had done for this moment. It also gave them a chance to observe me. And it turned out to be a challenging interview.
My notes for this interview on May 23, 1985:
The very first interview of the study, #15001. Subject was…consistently inconsistent and bothered by Calvinistic ethics and morals. He constantly used the term “faggots” to describe others, and kept replying to certain sexual and drug questions that he was not “one of those people.” Yet, in fact, the sexual endeavors of his past included trips to the baths once a month and using poppers once a week…At one point, he said AIDS has changed his life in that he has started doing more faggoty things, like going to the opera.
John, Laura, and I heaved a collective sigh of relief when this man left the office. A bottle of champagne was uncorked and we celebrated the beginning of a long journey ahead.
I continued to keep notes:
May 25 #15002. 24 years old. “You just live day by day, you know, each day this is what you decide you’re not going to do.”
#15003. Young, attractive man with older lover, in a non-sexual relationship of the past nine years. “This may become the worse plague the world has ever known.”
#15008. 40 year old lawyer, cool, has younger (26) lover. “A frightening, devastating disease, which has caused a lifestyle which was very exuberant and very positive into something almost totally the opposite, and I think it’s something a lot of people just haven’t come to grips with…I’m very frightened of the future. I don’t envy anyone in the position of coming out now. I don’t know what I would do.”
The job of asking intimate, yet clinical, questions and experiencing the growing anxiety and fear from these men, with little chance of dialogue between us, began to take its emotional toll on me.
It was in September, after my 106th interview, that I met my friend, Steve, for margaritas and burritos at Arriba, Arriba in Hell’s Kitchen. I waited for him on the sidewalk. As he approached me, I burst into tears. The culmination of my own fears and anxieties commingled with those of the men I had been interviewing all day, and the dam had burst. Poor Steve didn’t know what to do with me. He comforted me in the way that he could.
“Honey, you need a drink,” he cooed in his honeyed Alabama drawl.
We quickly ordered our first margarita.
The summer was over, and the interviews were wrapped for this year. I would return the next summer, and for the next six summers, to interview the same men.
In 1986, an antibody test became available to see who had been exposed to the virus known as HTLV-III (later, HIV). This then led to a whole new set of anxieties when I met again with my respondents for the second year of interviews.
During this second round, many men would bring out their journals, to recount their activities and their losses.
Some had now taken the test, offered for free and confidentially by the study, and had either been told of their results, or were still anxiously waiting.
Not all of the 745 Healthy Gay Men would remain healthy, after all.
My career in this new-found field of AIDS education was just beginning. As the study came to its season’s end, I began a new job with the NYC Department of Health.
October 17, 1985 – Was hired today as a counselor on the HTLV-III hotline….Glands continue to be swollen, and a general feeling of fatigue and nausea.
A few months later, I would take the HTLV-III antibody test, and receive the results.
Want to start from the beginning? Link to the first column: https://aumag.org/2020/05/25/last-dance/.
Bruce Ward is A&U’s Drama Editor, and he has been writing about the AIDS epidemic since its inception. His plays, Lazarus Syndrome and Decade: Life in the ’80s, have been produced throughout the U.S. Bruce was the original Director of the CDC National AIDS Hotline, and he was honored by POZ magazine as one of 2015’s POZ 100. You may follow him at: bdwardbos.wordpress.com.