Last week when I told you about NYC in 1983, I titled the post Underground and discussed the active sense of denial that many engaged in. I compared AIDS in NYC, c. 1983, to where we were a week ago in this current crisis. Time is telescoping fast. The next stage in NYC in the 80s took about 2 years, more or less. We’ve gotten there in just about a week.
St Marks Baths closed in December of 1985. The city closed all the sex clubs. The medical establishment had finally convinced everyone in authority that AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease. As I mentioned last week there were still some who denied this. But most of us got the message: That was the end of the party. I was still in college. Our on-campus world was not well-connected with the larger community around NYU, as is common in all “college towns”. We had our own events on campus even though some of us ventured out beyond Washington Square. But politically, we experienced this.
There were arguments in meetings about the justification for closing places. Didn’t we have the freedom to do whatever we wanted? Didn’t public health trump personal freedom? Didn’t the Federal Gov’t need to step up support for AIDS patients? Didn’t we need to do something to stop this from killing everyone? Do I have it? Do you? Did that last experience kill us both? Was it my fault? Was it yours?
The frantic arguments, the frenetic do-literally-anything-NOW-DAMNIT attitude covered a deeper experience:
When the party was over… that was a huge downer, even for those of us who had never been to the party. Our elders and teachers… our friends… our guides started to die. The City began to change. People who used to go out all the time discovered other forms of community. We didn’t know what to do or who would be next. In fright, literally, I gave up. I turned to my fraternity brothers at NYU and built a close-knit and safe “family of choice”. I drank a lot, to be honest. Gin and tonic, rum and coke, pints of beer, brandy alexanders, Irish coffees. And I smoked heavily: a pack a day and then some. Only later did I realize I was killing myself on purpose behind everyone’s back (mine too).
Politically the gay community was powerless at this point. Making bars “legal” meant that they couldn’t be run by crime syndicates any more. Rather they needed corporate bank accounts and board members. They didn’t have to pay protection money to NYC Finest, so they didn’t get protected anymore. These syndicates had to find other ways to make income. Folks in the city were just getting used to seeing things like pride parades and same-sex couples who actually identified as couples. But they were “over there” not “here, with me”. They were rarely seen. The conversation still included lots of code words to identify one’s “friend” as someone of importance and often one took an opposite-sex friend to the company party.
Then AIDS became the conversation even out in the “regular” world. What might cause it? What might I do to avoid it? During this time I was involved in something called, I think, “The Columbia Study.” A pair of interviewers came to my home each year and asked me, anonymously, what I did, and who I did it with. Did I have a support network? Did I ever do drugs? They tracked me all over the place. Keeping track of me to see if AIDS had any effect on me as a person. What they found was I stayed home a lot.
During this time I first heard the phrase, “A virus does not have a conscience”. The idea was to counter people who were. saying “AIDS is God’s punishment”. You don’t get sick just because you “did a sin”. That’s not how a virus works. It can’t see you or judge you. That was the argument. It is, as far as we know, true: a virus does not have a conscience. Only 40 years later do I see the lie: the sentence leaves God out of the equation completely. But ok… let’s lay aside theology for a moment.
A virus does not make choices about who to infect based on their actions. That is true. But we learned (mostly by being forced to learn) that a virus can be passed on to others by our actions. Then we discovered we did not have consciences because we still wanted the sex clubs and the discos and the 25¢ theatres and the adult book stores all to stay open. What we began to do was a sort of two-faced dance. “A virus does not have a conscience” means both,”you cannot judge me” and “I can do whatever I want – if I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die.” Don’t close our party down!
I can go to spring break, to the Lunar New Year Parade, to the St Parick’s Day dance if I want. I demand we get our Public Masses back NOW!
I begin to feel like AIDS in the 1980s was like Prep School for COVID and none of us graduated.
Things were about to change, though. And things are about to change for us too. Not in a good way, I fear.