NYC 1987: Mad as Hell

JMJ

This started with the idea that our current COVID crisis reminded me of the way we were dealing with AIDS in the 80s. In 1983 we were in denial in exactly the same way Americans were in early March 2020. In 1985 NYC was numb and scared. This time in 2020, it took America about two weeks to get here. The next stage is Anger. It took NYC two years to get to anger and, now, two weeks later in 2020 time, it’s 1987 all over again.

If you want to know the origins of our current idea of “political action” look to ACT-UP. It was founded in March of 1987, in the midst of the stunned silence created by the AIDS crisis. The essential attitude was “this is happening.” I admit the last thing I wanted to be reminded of (on most days) was AIDS. It was the silent elephant in the middle of every event, every party, every parade. But it was the last thing anyone wanted to do anything about, talk about, admit.

Although I had heard of ACT-UP already, my first exposure to them was when they disrupted a picnic. We had had a lovely political march up from Greenwich Village to Central Park for something or other. I seem to remember it was something to do with the UN. Anyway, we were all having a picnic in the big meadow in Central Park above Belvedere Castle. It was a nice afternoon when, through the trees on the western side of the park, came loud yelling and screaming. ACT-UP had gone up the West Side of the park, without a permit as was their wont, stopping traffic, getting arrested… and now had come bursting into our quiet event. And – to us, as it seemed at the time – acting out like petulant children. I and my friends – all NYU students – walked away. There were cops coming in, there was yelling and screaming.

For years after that event, I could not take ACT-UP seriously. We were doing the hard work – networking with politicians, civic leaders, etc. ACT-UP invaded St Patrick’s Cathedral and committed sacrilege. I got into a fight at NYU over that: I wasn’t even Catholic and I could see that was wrong. But petulant children always have parents that are spoiling them.

ACT-UP was driving social change – yes, sure. But they were doing it by using the tactics of bullies. And, point of fact, most of the things they were yelling about were not the real issue. 20 years later, we can see that some of their rallying points were – actually – not the right ones. Even John Cardinal O’Connor, whom they detested, was spending his night washing bedpans in AIDS hospices. But ACT-UP became the media’s accepted voice of gay politics in the same way that drag queens and leathermen were the media’s accepted image of gay pride parades. Ignoring thousands of women and men walking around in polo shirts, jeans, and comfortable shoes… it was the fringes that made the news. And, just as there were petition drives, phone trees, and even prayer vigils, it was the fringe that stopped traffic and chained themselves to traders on the stock market floor that made the news.

This is where we get politics today and is the real legacy of ACT-UP. This is the origin of that curious cross between Ghandi and Kent State that gives us shattered windows on main street in the name of peace. And it’s the source of streets filled with pink hats that do nothing more than fill streets with pink hats and feel smug about it. At one point, political action was seen as taking the high ground. MLK walking through the streets of and watching the walls of Jericho crumble in urban Alabama. ACT-UP taught us that taking the low ground got more press. And sometimes, that works. But it always made us feel good.

ACT-UP forced conversations that may sound familiar today: does someone die with AIDS or from complications arising from AIDS? How should we refer to AIDS patients? Can we refer to AIDS patients?

And, right on time two weeks after hitting the stunned silence of 1985, COVID has given us petulant children.

People are demanding we change the numbers because not everyone with. COVID is dying from COVID, as if mortality is that black and white. They are yammering about needing “herd immunity” when I don’t want to be exposed, do you? They demand we get to 15% exposure. (SF in lockdown, even so, seems to have gotten to 13% very easily.)

You know, we won’t know until 20 years from now how this new pack of petulant children has affected us. Will they commit sacrilege? They’ve been signing petitions for weeks demanding the bishops open up the churches again… will some flag waving harridan claiming to be an EM pry open the locked doors of a church and distribute communion in the hand to passers-by as an act of protest? Will a bunch of MAGA bros swarm out of the Marshal Vortext to bully bishops at the USCCB meeting or harass them online? We shall see.

We’re in the anger stage now. There’s no telling who will chain themselves to whom.

In two weeks it will be 1989. May 2020. What will happen then?

NYC 1985. The Doomed.

JMJ

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.

NYC 1983. Underground.

NYC Subway, 1983 or so

JMJ

My coworker asked if I had ever been through anything “like this” before. The answer was instant. Yes: AIDS in 1983. I spoke with a friend after Mass tonight and he agreed. AIDS in the early 80s was exactly like this.

In the early 80s (nearly until the end of the 80s, actually) we didn’t know what was causing it. HIV was a theory (a good one… and the right one it turns out) put forward in 1984 but even as late as 87 or 88, I remember a sizable portion of the gay community being quite vocal about multiple causes. One newspaper editor was quite convinced that the syndrome itself was caused by a combined one-two punch of Swine Flu complicated by rampant drug use. I remember a headline in his paper where a certain country had recently admitted to having AIDS patients. The secondary headline was “You know what else they have there? A lot of sick pigs.” We didn’t know – or didn’t want to admit – that this was your basic STD; albeit deadly.

A close friend was first diagnosed with AIDS in the spring of 1983 and was in St Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, they used to seal the doors with plastic sheets and make you wear masks, gloves, and gowns to visit AIDS patients. A wise mutual friend took me to see Mills in the hospital. We put on all the things and sidled through the plastic sheeting and then the nurse who was helping us ran back to the safety of her desk. We took off our plastic protections and kissed Mills on the forehead hello. In those days the journey from diagnosis to death was 1-2 years. Mills Omaly died in 1984.

Here’s a good sentence about 1981: By the end of the year, 121 of the individuals with the disease (of 270 reported cases) had died. It was 100% fatal in those days. For diagnosis, we had to rely on 3 marker diseases: Kaposi’s Sarcoma (a type of skin cancer), Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), or a type of Lymphoma (another cancer). If you had one of these three things and you were a gay man, then you had AIDS. The issue is by the time you got to one of these three diseases, your AIDS was already quite advanced, and you’re about to die. We didn’t know this until later. So in 1983… someone would see the “wine-dark kiss of death” on their skin (Angels in America) and folks would run away. People would avoid them on the street. Families would disown them. Preachers would call it God’s Wrath. And since it was “only” gays, people treated them as a part of the populace that could be sacrificed. And then they would die, alone and isolated.

Even after the CDC ruled out casual contact as a possible vector of transmission a straight roomie once worried that he could get AIDS by sharing a smoke with me. But that was not just an issue of prejudice. This thing was so alien, even gays just didn’t know. People who thought that “gay” was a genetic thing suddenly wondered if AIDS was related to the “gay gene.” what if this was all programmed to collapse?

And even when we started talking about Safe Sex – which is to say use condoms, etc – I was in meetings where grown, intelligent people were like “Codswallop! I don’t need a condom, it’s not like anyone getting a baby here.” We didn’t want to admit it was your basic STD, albeit deadly, because that meant there was really only one way to stop it. That required everyone to play along, everyone needs to stop doing whatever they want. Bathhouses closed. Sex clubs closed. Back rooms in bars closed. And still, people were screaming about their personal freedom.

It was so freaking scary. I’m crying now. For friends I lost. For panic I felt. For questions I had that no one could answer. I was constantly checking lymph nodes, odd blotches, and using this breath thing where you made a ball float in a tube marked with calibrations. I don’t know what it was, anymore: it had something to do with lung capacity and pneumonia. Had I ever had sex with someone who had had sex with someone who had had sex with someone who had AIDS? Thinking these things then is probably why I’m alive now: but it took a whole lot out of me.

That’s where we are now, at least in my book, except the time is telescoped now. Instead of two years, we can be dead in two weeks. People are screaming about freedom, still, but casual contact can be – actually – deadly. A few weeks ago, we did not know what we know now. Italy hadn’t happened a few weeks ago.

People are in denial: talking about Population Density in China like they’re still in Grade School trying to imagine “One Billion People.” Early on in the current crisis I heard about virus spread as an issue of Population Density in China, and how can we keep “them” from coming here. We’ll be safe in the US. Then I realized that population density in SF, NYC, etc. is higher than in China. In fact, in NYC, the only Borough with a similar density to central Wuhan is Staten Island. The others have a per-mile density several times greater than central Wuhan. SF is 15K more populous per square mile than central Wuhan. DC is higher. LA is higher. Rome and Napoli are way less dense than those US cities… so… brace yourselves.

And some people still think a portion of the population is purely sacrificial. It’s only the elderly (which I’ve heard too damn much). It’s only Chinese. It’s only travelers. It’s only the poor.

Yes, I’ve been here before.