Growing up in the 1980s, as a boy thinking that you are gay, was often a day to day struggle with a vision of homosexuality that went from humorous and carefree, a flourishing in the 1970s Disco culture materialized in the well-muscled and tan boys of The Village People, that seemingly overnight went through a metamorphoses into the emaciated and sweaty Aidan Quinn in “An Early Frost.” Suddenly, it wasn’t hip or glamorous to be gay anymore; it was a death sentence. So, when I got to the Castro in 1988, I expected the place to be a ghost town. It wasn’t. Yet, it was a weird sort of submersion into a modern-day concentration camp: those that had been there the longest looked the worst: thin, sunken-faced, and spotted with sores; the relative newbies were nonetheless pumped from constant gym visits and still maintaining a sort of Tony Manero swagger that I recognized from my childhood idols. The younger boys, like me, were just plain scared. While we longed for a male embrace – we didn’t want to die for it. The overflowing bowls and boxes of free condoms, in every bar and bathhouse, gave a false but comforting feeling of safety. According to the CDC: “Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) disease, and the related acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), emerged as a leading cause of death among adults aged 25–44 in the United States in the 1980s, and the death rate for HIV disease among this age group increased steadily through the early 1990s. During the early years of HIV, there were few treatment options and mortality was high.” AIDS deaths peaked in 1995, when 43,115 people died. Yet, we partied on; we were like oblivious revelers boarding the Titanic after it was already at the bottom of the Atlantic.
As the 80s turned into the 90s, we all became rather tired of AIDS; and, we tried to make it go away in our own heads: with the reopening of numerous gay bathhouses around the City, after they were closed at the height of the crisis, and tried to force the collective conscious of the country to other inflated and pressing gay issues – for instance, the ridiculous replacement of the AIDS movie-of-the-week by the phenomena of weepy stories surrounding the tag-line “…I was thrown out of the military, because I am gay.” At near the height of the AIDS epidemic, when thousands of us were dying, all one heard was “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Later, when deaths dramatically declined, because of antiviral cocktails, AIDS slipped further back into the gay mind – becoming a sort of Dark Age epoch in the history of homosexual freedom – that ugly period between the triumphs of 60s and 70s accomplishments, epitomized by Stonewall and Harvey Milk, and this new era of renaissance freedom; for, they already had their eyes on the prize – and it was gay marriage. But, now, that the piles of body bags have been removed; what did we learn?
After the horror of the late-80s and early-90s, the gay community was in a very special place: a rare moment in history when everything could have changed. But, did we have the foresight, or the courage; or the humility. We could have admitted that the gay male experiment failed; that a world without women, a world of total and complete sexual freedom, was not possible. Only, we didn’t do that, still blinded – we forged ahead, never addressing the desperation and mania which caused the loss of so many. Now, according to the CDC: “Projections have shown that if current trends continue, half of all gay and bisexual men will be HIV-positive by age 50.” In addition: “While estimates show that men who have sex with men (MSM) comprise only about 2% of the U.S. population, this group accounts for most new HIV infections (63% in 2010). Between 2008 and 2010, annual new HIV infections increased 12% among MSM…Younger MSM (ages 13-24) are at particular risk. In 2010, this group accounted for 1 in 5 (19%) of all new HIV infections and 30% of new infections among all MSM.” This is what we left behind, the inherence of death.