1986: First Ray of Hope?
Part VIII of an Ongoing Chronicle of the First Fifteen Years of the AIDS Pandemic
by Bruce Ward

Pandora, the first mortal woman, received from Zeus a box that she was forbidden to open. The box contained all human blessings and all human curses. Temptations overcame restraint, and Pandora opened it. In a moment, all the curses were released into the world, and all the blessings escaped and were lost——except one: hope. Without hope, mortals could not endure.
—Jerome Groopman, M.D., The Anatomy of Hope

On September 29, 1986, my picture appeared on the inside cover of Time magazine, on the index page, one of the three highlighted articles for that week. The picture was again on page 61, only this time larger, at the bottom center of the page. The title of the article was “A Ray of Hope in the Fight Against AIDS”. Underneath was the subhead: “While not a cure, an experimental drug called AZT prolongs the life of patients.”

In the picture I am seated at my desk at the New York City Department of Health AIDS Hotline, where I was employed as a hotline information counselor.

It is a nicely framed shot: I am on the phone, left hand on receiver, pen held firmly in right hand, papers arranged semi-neatly on desk, a folder with the word ‘AIDS’ partially covered underneath my right arm. An in/out mailbox frames the lower left of the picture. A very professional-looking health education poster announcing the HRA HELPLINE is behind my right shoulder, in red and black. Behind me, my co-worker, Don, mirrors my pose, with his right hand on phone and his left hand handling a pen. I am wearing a blue and green striped button-down shirt. My hair is curly. My summer tan is still lingering. I am twenty-eight years old.

It had been two years since I had returned from Hawaii. The small pea on the left side of my neck was still a small pea, no larger and no smaller. Otherwise, I felt fine. I went about with my life, trying to keep up with the dizzyingly changing information while still honing my skills as a counselor, educator and interviewer.

Despite the creation of anonymous testing sites in early 1986, most gay men, including myself, were not running out to get tested for fear that the results would not be as “anonymous and confidential” as promoted, and that a round-up to a deserted island was in the imminent future, as Senator Jesse Helms suggested.

The idea of an isolated island didn’t seem so bad, actually. Much more fabulously festive than the leper colonies on Molokai, I imagined. But I balked at the idea of some conservative nut sending us there. It would have to be on our own terms.

William F. Buckley suggested that the potential perpetrators of disease distribution be tattooed on—where else?—the buttocks. In his own words:

“The objective is to identify the carrier, and to warn his victim. Someone, twenty years ago, suggested a discreet tattoo the site of which would alert the prospective partner to the danger of proceeding as had been planned. But the author of the idea was treated as though he had been schooled in Buchenwald, and the idea was not widely considered, but maybe it is up now for reconsideration.”

I actually do not think the Time Magazine photo was posed. Though I may be wrong. I remember the photographer taking our picture. I’m not sure if I knew then that he was from Time or that he was there for an article about AZT. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be so prominently displayed in a national magazine.

But the photograph wasn’t about me. I wasn’t the subject. I was the cog in the wheel, the comforting voice on the phone, the city health educator who kept careful notes and checked off appropriate boxes of each logged call. I was anonymous and confidential, nameless and (until September 29, 1986) faceless. I was an emblem, a symbol, on the periphery, part of the larger picture but not the main event. I was the face of the “first ray of hope.”

I see this as the calm before my own personal storm. I look at the photograph of my twenty-eight year old self, and the moment floods back to me in a perfect confluence of emotion and detachment. I think this is why I am now able to chronicle it from a personal viewpoint. Memory takes distance. So I travel back and absorb.

As I stare at the snapshot, I can feel myself going down again, down that rabbit hole, through the Looking Glass, into another world, another me. It was thirty-four years ago, but it seems like another life, someone else’s life, but also my life. Me but not me. As in a dream in which I’m constantly trying to wake myself up.

I remember the names of my supervisors at the New York Department of Health hotline and what they looked like. Susan was a raven-haired Jewish former hippie turned social worker. Stephen was a buttoned-down and horned-rimmed spectacled WASP. Susan was tougher. Stephen was into discussing feelings.

I remember Don, the co-worker sitting behind me in the Time photograph, and his calm demeanor. I remember Rebecca, another hotline counselor, and her girlfriend, Lourdes, a medical student, and our discussions about my fathering their child.

I remember the square, state-funded, industrial room, and the posters Scotch-taped to the walls, each with a corner always curled up or down, until somebody would smash a palm on the fallen edge so that the poster could stay up for at least one more day.

I remember the sssss of the radiator in the winter and grimy paint-peeling windows we had to lift from the bottom to open. I remember the smells of pencil shavings and Xerox paper and the ring of the telephones (a loud brrrinngg brrrinngg) and the small square red lights flashing, each one representing a person on hold.

And I remember when Rock Hudson died, and how literally overnight the epidemic turned from a back page item in the New York Times to a national news story.

The world was starting to crumble but, at that moment, I still clung to the illusion that I was in control, that everything would be okay, that we would be safe, that medical professionals knew what they were doing. I believed, as did my co-workers, that if we just worked hard enough and long enough, this craziness would all be over soon. Surely, it couldn’t get worse or last much longer, could it? We were living at the end of the twentieth century, there hadn’t been a plague since… well, the plague. No, no, it’s not possible that half of a generation of gay men will be wiped out, most of them within a span of only ten years. Maybe this wasn’t really happening. Maybe it was just a dream, after all.

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.