05 June 2011

Thirty Years Later, It's Our Epidemic

Thirty years ago today, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control, included a piece of information that was little-noted at the time but would, literally, change the world.

Five previously-healthy men, ranging in age from 29 to 36, were diagnosed with an illness that had been all but unknown in the United States, save for people with compromised immune systems.  About all these young men had in common were that they were treated in Los Angeles hospitals and were said to be "active homosexuals."  They had no known common sexual contacts.

The illness for which they were being treated was pneumocystis carinii. By the time the MMWR announcement was published, two of the men had already died. Within a year, the other three would be dead.

About the only people who knew about their illnesses were those doctors and researchers who read that issue of the MMWR.  However, stories about a "gay cancer" in which victims had nearly identical systems to those of the five men in the report had been circulating, mostly by word of mouth (Remember, there was no Internet in those days.) among gay men.

That so-called "gay cancer" and the previously-rare form of pneumonia that killed its victims was, of course, what we now know as AIDS.  

What few people knew was that many, many more people were carrying the seeds of that illness within them.  In fact, a little less than two weeks before the MMWR was published, I was--unknowingly, of course--among four of them. It was the last time I saw any of them alive.  I was twenty-two years old, and those people I saw were around the same age.

Eleven other friends and acquaintances of mine have died of the illness.  Five of them--including my first AA sponsor--died between Memorial Day and Christmas one year.  

That was also the year--eleven years after I completed my B.A.-- I began to teach at the college level as a graduate assistant.  I saw, immediately, a dramatic difference between the freshmen in the first class I taught and my undergraduate classmates--or the kind of person I was in as a freshman.  Even those of us who came from relatively conservative environments were still shaped, in various ways, by the various forms of sexual liberation that had washed over college campuses and other segments of society for nearly a decade before my first day as an undergraduate. 

We may well have been the first generation of undergraduates who weren't hiding our sexual experience, desires and proclivities from each other, let alone those who had immediate authority over us.  In fact, said authority figures--and the parents and guardians of some students--almost seemed to expect that sexual encounters would be part of our undergraduate experience.  I recall one classmate being told, by his father, that he needed to "get laid more often."  That young man's father was one of the so-called pillars of his community.

The freshmen I was teaching nearly a generation later shared none of those attitudes.  In fact, I could sense it even before they wrote or voiced their attitudes about sex and intoxication.  

At first I thought that they didn't value those things as much as we did because they were on a non-residential campus, in contrast to the residential campus I attended.  Then I thought that they were more conservative because they had grown up with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as their Presidents, and the resulting conservative values expressed in the culture. 

But one day I thought back to something else I'd experienced about two years earlier, near the end of the 1980's.  I had been working as an artist-in-residence with the Poets In The Schools program here in New York.  One of the schools in which I'd been working was in the East New York section of Brooklyn.  It was considered, along with the South Bronx and possibly East Harlem and South Jamaica, among the poorest and most dangerous parts of New York City.  (The following year, the precinct that included the school recorded more homicides than all of France or the then-West Germany.) 

One day, in that school, an eighth-grader asked how old I was. When I told him I was thirty, he asked when I would turn thirty-one.  I told him three or four months, or whatever it was.  "Then you're the oldest man I know!"

Mind you, that boy was thirteen years old.  "No, that can't be!"

"My Uncle Henry was thirty-one when he died."  And, that kid added, it was AIDS that claimed him.  I would find out that about at least half of the kids in that class had a family member who died the same way; everyone in that class knew someone who died that way or was murdered.  

The students in my freshman class were only two to four years older than that boy in East New York would have been.  A couple of them grew up there; a few more grew up in neighborhoods that weren't much different.  I guessed that their comparative circumspection about sex and drugs may well have been shaped by their experiences of seeing friends and family members succumb to the ravages of AIDS or as a result of the so-called War on Drugs.

During that semester, Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive.  Of course, he was very quick to assert that he is heterosexual.  While nearly everyone believed him, many of us thought he "had" to say that in order to cover himself.  Being the great NBA player he was, he had access to the best medical care available.  But he could very easily have been misdiagnosed or mistreated in some way had he not made that assertion.

On the other hand, his announcement of his "normal" sexuality turned out to be a good thing in the long run, for it helped to change a lot of people's perceptions about AIDS--and, perhaps, homosexuality.  No longer could people equate one with the other.  

So, in that freshman class at Brooklyn College in 1991, I believe I saw an interesting and, on its face, counterintuitive change take place.  Along with their more conservative and restrained attitudes about sex, I was also seeing, if not tolerance, at least an acknowledgement that people they knew and loved are gay and were not, as one televangelist claimed, like rats during the time of a plague.  That is not to say that there weren't homophobic students:  I recall comments scrawled on the door of Allen Ginsberg's office at the college.  But other students, including most in my class, were ashamed and embarrassed that one of their peers could be so ignorant.  And a few students and faculty members openly mentioned their non-heterosexual inclinations.

I was not one of them.  I still feared how people might react had I openly discussed my gender identity, much less manifested it.  Years later, when I "came out," I experienced some of the things I'd feared--though not from my students.  

So I can understand why too many trans people kill themselves or stay "in the closet."  Too many of us lose families and other networks, and jobs, as a result of finally reaching the point at which we could no longer live lies.  The loss of our lives as we knew them drives too many of us into sex work and into other kinds of risky work and behaviors, and the resulting loss of income and insurance keeps too many of us from getting the diagnoses and treatments we need.   

Thirty years after that MMWR report, HIV-positive people are living longer and, sometimes, not getting sick at all.  That is true, anyway, for those who have good incomes and insurance policies.  For everyone else, the disease is just as terrible as it was then.  The difference is that its victims are poorer and more likely to be female.  Male-to-female transgenders just happen to fit both descriptions.  So, thirty years later, the AIDS epidemic is ours.

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