As odd as it may seem to today’s younger gay men, it was before the advent of the Internet. Telephone answering machines were only beginning to come into use, and were the size of, well, VCRs.
In the early months of 1981, news spread of a mysterious “rare cancer” affecting gay men in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Thirty-one years ago this month, the Centers for Disease Control reported clusters of hospitalized gay male patients with Karposi’s sarcoma and Pneumocystis pneumonia. By the end of the year, the death toll was 121.
At the time, then-folded copies of the then-biweekly Washington Blade would arrive every other Friday morning at businesses throughout the center of the local gay community surrounding Dupont Circle. Some would gather early on those days to grab the latest edition in search of news about the mysterious ailments felling gay men in the Northeast and on the West Coast. Blade reporters of the day – notably Steve Martz, Jim Marks and Lisa Keen – provided details of the latest developments.
We were eager for any news we could get our hands on. We would pop in neighborhood bookstores to pick up daily newspapers from New York and San Francisco. Any tidbit of information gleaned from a friend in the Castro or lower Manhattan was immediately shared and passed on.
We debated whether the whole thing could be a result of the use of poppers, an early cautionary theory. We secretly hoped it would prove that simple.
Searching our bodies for skin anomalies or lesions, or any swelling of lymph nodes, eventually became a regular ritual. We started looking at others in the same exploratory way. Hardest of all, we struggled against the accusation too large a number would hurl our way – that somehow we deserved this plague or had brought it upon ourselves.
It was an era in which we remained outcasts with our differentness breeding distance, hostility and discrimination. We had only begun to find comfort and companionship – and an increasing level of visibility – in the localized enclaves we inhabited and the bars we frequented. We danced in the hope of warding off whatever demons there might be, or at least to momentarily forget they were there.
For those of us young enough at the time to be discovering the possibilities of our futures, we longed to assure ourselves that life would soon return to normal. An exponentially spiraling sense of danger and increasing incidence of illness quickly leading to death, however, interrupted our lives and wreaked havoc in our emerging sense of identity.
We suddenly found ourselves living in a frightening time that we suspected was going to get worse. And it did.
Painful was the sense that we were disposable, that few cared much, that the response by government and medicine was inadequate. Our anger and aloneness led us to understand the importance of shared struggle and joining together to develop an infrastructure for a diverse and growing community.
Most gay men now in their late 40s or older carry an unwritten list of names next to their heart – a litany of the many friends and acquaintances who would succumb to AIDS over the years. When a reminder comes along, prompting a rush of recollection and the sadness of so many talented and wonderful people dying at an early age, we remember.
In the 20 years or so until HIV/AIDS led less to death than medical management, we memorialized many. In Washington, we had the privilege of hosting multiple displays of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in its entirety, first in 1987 and subsequently in 1988, 1989, 1992, and 1996 when it covered the entire expanse of the National Mall.
The heartbreak of visiting the panels of loved ones and the heartache from the immensity of it all was palpable. Part virtual graveyard, part political protest, the Quilt allowed us to grieve as a community and to share our loss with others in a celebration of the lives of those no longer among us.
It’s also an ongoing tribute to what they taught us in death and we’ve become in life.
Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.