Summer, New York, 1981: cool evening sunset on a Brooklyn rooftop, dazzling Manhattan skyline, a good time with good friends. A tray of homemade chocolate chip cookies accompanied a bowl of kiwi, my first tasting of the green fruit. Conversation about a gay cancer threatened the magic, my first hearing about the strange new disease. I laid awake wondering and worrying and wishing …
I’ve traveled over half my life’s journey — 37 years — aware of this disease before it numbered 50 known cases worldwide, a thousand bucks could be raised to combat it, an unfathomable cost of lives and dollars. HIV/AIDS has been my most constant companion, and to a point, still is and always will be. Our relationship has vacillated over who’s in control. I won the power struggle, raising my consciousness and awareness to a place where I had the final say in how I lived my life, whether my years numbered many or few. It wasn’t easy and still challenges me.
Dictionaries confirm consciousness means the thoughts and feelings of an individual or collectively of an aggregate of people.
Regarding AIDS, where was the consciousness of America in the 80s and 90s? Staggering numbers of gay citizens lived horrible lives afflicted with the horrors of a mysterious disease and died agonizing, disfiguring, stigmatized deaths, often alone, mistreated, and without hope. Hospitals refused patients, funeral homes corpses. (My friend Eric sneaked out the body of his lover George in the dead of night.) How a nation’s citizens live defines that nation; so does how a nation’s citizens die. America didn’t give a shit.
HIV/AIDS didn’t infect only gay men. In the beginning, homos, heroin addicts, Haitians, and hemophiliacs — the 4-H Club — were thought to be the only groups targeted. Those who contracted the disease through tainted blood were seen as innocent victims, collateral damage, implying all the others were guilty: fags, druggies, and poor black people.
Powerful homophobic forces — our own government, Christians and the Catholic Church, pharmaceutical conglomerates, bureaucratic scientists, and the medical establishment — attempted to keep their boot on the necks of gay men and other “lowlifes” afflicted by the plague, to shackle us to our lowly place. Toadying institutions took their cues from the worst president in American history: Ronald Reagan. He granted them all license to practice the most shameful acts of prejudice. For years, the Office of the President, the embodiment of what our nation stands for, never even mentioned the disease — history’s monstrous impeachment. Reagan’s tacit approval condemned hundreds of thousands of his citizens and, because of the disease’s rapid spread, millions from the pandemic to a horrific death. I throw those introductory, staggering statistics at the feet of Ronald Reagan.
In 1983, I visited California for Thanksgiving. While my born-again Christian brother drove to a restaurant, he and his wife excitedly extolled the virtues of their 40th president. I sat in the back quietly streaming uncontrollable tears, claiming allergies … and saying nothing. My tacit approval, my impeachment. I ducked my head and bore my depression and guilt and grief to survive the only way I knew how. Clearly, I had work to do.
So did America.
I believe with all my heart — for personal reasons — gay men in this country were chosen to challenge America’s betrayal of, or commitment to, the ideals of its foundation, to its consciousness of justice in the face of unconscionable injustice, to rekindle its inseparable and deep humanity by cracking open its citizens’ hearts.
The consciousness of a nation rises or sinks one citizen at a time. Tens of thousands played their parts, unwillingly or purposefully: heroes and villains, saints and sinners, the courageous and cowardly, sweethearts and assholes. Bizarrely, those roles could be reversed, depending on how one viewed the disease and those afflicted. Fighting for what they believe, a Catholic bishop or a drag queen could be hero or villainess, both with good intentions. Even bigots and hypocrites served their purpose, contrasting their cruelty, indifference, and cold hearts with the inherent goodness of the American people.
In hindsight, during that initial tumultuous decade, the war for the consciousness of America was in full combat between the powerful and the powerless. In just 16 years, those roles reversed too. Individuals and events held up mirrors to America until its heart cracked open, one citizen at a time.
1983/87: Newsweek magazine
Appearing on the cover of the August 8, 1983 issue of Newsweek below the banner, Sex, Politics and the Impact of AIDS, two healthy looking, young gay men look the reader in the eye with sad, plaintive expressions, arms around each. Bobbi Campbell and Bobby Hilliard were lovers. Both had AIDS.
Campbell was the first person to come out publicly as a person with AIDS, and co-author of The Denver Principles, the 1983 manifesto of the People With AIDS Self-Empowerment Movement. He died a year after the publication at 32.
In its August 10, 1987 issue, Newsweek published The Face of AIDS: One Year In The Epidemic, a photographic journal of a single plague year. The striking cover featured portraits of 24 individuals living with AIDS. All died of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses that year.
Both of these magazines and their featured articles conveyed to an ignorant and panicked public two stark facts: the disease knows no boundaries, and these people look like me, my neighbor, friends, and loved ones.
Somewhere in a box filled with mementos I have the ‘87 Newsweek. A picture of dear friend Michael Calvert — cute, sweet, and long gone — was displayed along with others, many also probably long gone.
1984: Safe-Sex Guidelines
When research discovered sex a primary route of infection, responsible healthcare professionals attempted to stem the rapidly spreading epidemic by compiling a list of sexual activities based on no-risk, low-risk, or high-risk ratings. First used in professional literature in 1984, no one predicted the volatile reaction to those two words: safe sex.
Gay men of the 80s rode the waves of two social phenomena: 67’s Summer of Love and 69’s Stonewall Riots. Relinquishing newfound sexual freedoms that had burst out of the closet — banned for millennia and barely a decade old — seemed to play into the hands of the religious, to betray and squash victories hard won during the sexual revolution. The safe sex message, delivered mainly by straight men and women ignorant of the importance of sex, angered and insulted gay men.
Factions within the national community fought each other. Owners of bookstores and bathhouses were characterized as ‘’vile’’ and ‘’merchants of death,’’ aggravating an already inflamed, hysterical, and ill-informed public disgusted by gay sex and resentful of the confrontation.
Those were my ballpark days as a deejay at the Denver bathhouse. By the time the Colorado State Department of Health got their act together, for months the owners were already posting the guidelines, supplying free condoms, and offering anonymous HIV testing.
But gay men continued to lose their lives in ever-increasing numbers. If the American consciousness needed to rise, so did gay men’s.
1985: The Death of Rock Hudson
When Rock Hudson, the beautiful, A-list movie star of the 50s and 60s and television in the 70s, revealed he was HIV positive, the world careened in shock. Well, the straight world. Even in 70s Greeley, Colorado, I’d heard rumors the hunk belonged to my tribe, which became a knowing wink.
How could this masculine dreamboat for women and envy of men have a disease associated with drug addicts and perverts? The enormity of his announcement meant AIDS was front-page news.
Hudson’s irresponsible behavior threatened the good. Knowing he was HIV positive, Hudson continued his kissing scenes with an unaware Linda Evans on TV’s #1 show Dynasty set in glamorous Denver. He also continued his affair with an unaware Marc Christian. Before he died, Hudson made the first contribution to amFAR ($250,000), the non-profit organization dedicated to HIV/AIDS research and prevention given stellar exposure by best friend, Elizabeth Taylor.
Another best friend, Doris Day, said, “I know something good will come of this.” She was right. Donations for funding medical research poured into organizations, and immediately following Hudson’s death, Congress appropriated $221 million to develop a cure for AIDS. All it took was the death of a movie star.
Though I can find no record, I remember Doris standing by her Rock, arm in arm, as they confronted an onslaught of flashing bulbs and impatient reporters. Fearful of contagion by touching, a nation witnessed Day’s fearless, unconditional friendship. Destigmatizing the disease began its long road toward compassionate understanding.
1987: ACT UP
In-your-face but peaceful civil disobedience defined the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP). Formed in 1987 by six gay activists in New York City, they adopted an inverted pink triangle to reclaim the badge of homosexual shame used in Nazi concentration camps and the slogan SILENCE = DEATH as its logo.
Intelligent, informed, indomitable, and media savvy, the members staged and recorded many sit-ins. After shutting down and embarrassing institutions and businesses, representatives were finally granted a seat at the table to advise scientists on their needs. But by the time the cocktail appeared in 1997 — within 30 days the combination therapy yielded undetectable viral loads! — almost 9 million HIV cases had been reported worldwide.
ACT UP’s women’s caucus challenged a 1988 article that appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine — written by a psychiatrist — claiming HIV transmission was impossible penis to vagina with their campaign Say No to Cosmo. They also challenged the Center for Disease Control’s narrow definition of AIDS that denied the different symptoms women experienced from men, for example cervical cancer, and consequently, women their Social Security benefits. The rallying cry? Women Don’t Get AIDS / They Just Die From It. In 1993, women were finally eligible for federal benefits, and accurate tallying increased the number of women with AIDS almost 50 percent. These two fights dispelled the deadly misogynistic propaganda that HIV/AIDS was not transmitted heterosexually.
ACT UP challenged the homophobic Catholic Church, staging the first Stop the Church demonstration in 1989 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The protest exposed the Catholic Church for its shameful policies on condoms, homosexuality, and lack of compassion.
To me, the guerilla tactics of ACT UP raised conflicting feelings: embarrassment they were so public and envy I wasn’t among them. But ACT UP forever changed new drug protocols, benefitting the entire world — myself included.
That summer on the Brooklyn rooftop, Rodger McFarlane, one of the founders of ACT UP, could be spotted dancing at the party. In 2004, McFarlane to head the Gill Foundation. We reconnected and relived those fun days with fun guys, glad to be alive.
1987: NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt
Fourty-eight thousand 3-by-6-foot panels, each representing a life loved. Fifty-four tons of grief, giggles, sequins, teddy bears, car keys, photographs, love, and even a bowling ball.
Inspired by the annual candlelight march in 1985 honoring slain Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, San Francisco gay-rights activist Cleve Jones envisioned a movable, tangible, and personally built memorial, which is now the largest piece of community folk art in the world.
I viewed its first public display in 1987 during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Half a million people meandered through the patchwork of panels spread over the mall, larger than a football field. I’ve also viewed a traveling version displayed at the Denver Stock Show. Both times, a gentle quiet pervaded the atmosphere, a holy air of reverence paused by fleeting laughs and sobs.
The quilt was meant to evoke emotions, not only for those personally affected, but for a public estranged from the reality of the pandemic, a legacy to a dark time, a national treasure honoring the dead so the living never forget.
The Quilt was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and in the same year, the film, Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt, won the Oscar for best feature-length documentary.
In a black-and-white photograph, a bearded, emaciated young man lies on a bed, staring into oblivion … or heaven. A father cradles his son’s head, a hand resting on the son’s arm, stick thin. The father’s eyes are closed, his mouth whispering words of comfort, his face in a slight contortion of love and grief. The dying man’s sister cradles her toe headed daughter, gazes upon father and brother with hints of wonder, mystery, and sadness. A picture above the dying man displays an outreached hand, maybe of an angel.
David Lawrence Kirby, subject of the deathbed photograph, reunited with his estranged Ohio family to die among loved ones. Kirby allowed a photographer to take pictures of him on the condition the pictures would not profit anyone.
Life magazine presented the photo November, 1990 to a nation uncomfortable with Kirby’s resemblance to a Holocaust victim. The Catholic Church strongly objected to the image conveying “an inappropriate allusion to the historical imagery of the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus Christ after the crucifixion,” according to Wikipedia. What more fitting testament could the Church have asked for? But the Vicar of Rome and his minions missed the tenderness, delicacy, grace, and mercy of a youthful death and a family’s grief. Fortunately, millions worldwide did not.
1990: Ryan White CARE Act
In 1990, Ryan White died from AIDS-related complications one month before his high-school graduation and four months before Congress enacted The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act. “Payer of last resort” for people living with HIV/AIDS who have no other resources, the largest federally funded program seeks to improve availability of care for low-income, uninsured, and underinsured AIDS patients.
In 1984, the Kokomo, Indiana teenager contracted HIV from a tainted blood transfusion to combat his hemophilia. Little was known about pediatric cases, but enough doctors could assure White posed no risk. Fearful parents railed against White’s re-entry to school, and news of the ensuing conflict turned him into a poster child for AIDS research and public education.
The perception that AIDS afflicted only gay men, drug addicts, minorities, or the poor shifted public opinion dramatically. White strongly rejected his status as an “innocent victim” foisted upon him by those who preferred AIDS fair compensation for undesirables, because that label inferred others were “guilty.”
Funding for The Ryan White Act is always in the crosshairs of Republican assholes, who threaten White’s legacy, but never the raising of our nation’s consciousness.
1991: Magic Johnson
Winning a championship and the National Basketball Association Finals Most Valuable Player Award in his rookie season, a member of the US Dream Team winning the 1992 Olympic gold medal, one of the all-time best players, Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr. announced he was HIV positive in 1991.
Johnson shook the straight world to its core. His stellar status in the sports world insured a different segment of the public would hear his message, negating long-held stereotypes that AIDS was the gay disease and heterosexuals were immune from infection. As a high-profile African American, Johnson brought much needed attention to a segment of an HIV population often ill-informed and underserved.
Johnson continues to advocate for HIV issues and educate the public.
1991 — The Red Ribbon
Pinned to his tux lapel at the 1991 Tony Awards, Jeremy Irons wore the first red ribbon that soon became the ubiquitous symbol for AIDS awareness.
The Red Ribbon Project, formed by New York-based Visual AIDS Artists Caucus in 1991, designed the emblem specifically to raise the consciousness of the world as a visual sign of compassion for AIDS patients, caregivers, and loved ones. The color red, according to Wikipedia, was chosen for its ‘connection to blood and the idea of passion — not only anger, but love, like a valentine.’
Over 100,000 ribbons were handed out at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert held in London in 1992. Beginning in 2007, a 28-foot red ribbon hangs from the North Portico of the White House on World AIDS Day (December 1st), conveying its power to promote awareness, research, and support funding for HIV/AIDS. The consciousness of America traveled far from the Reagan years.
1998: Matthew Shepard
In 1998 this young Wyoming man — intelligent, enthusiastic, tenderhearted, and kind — was brutally beaten because he was gay. The cyclist who found Matthew tied to a fence, pistol whipped and tortured, mistook him for a scarecrow. Matthew was HIV positive and died in Fort Collins, Colorado six days later, inspiring worldwide candlelight vigils. He was 21 years old.
At Matthew’s funeral, Fred Phelps, disbarred lawyer and Baptist minister of the vehemently homophobic Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, attempted to disrupt the service, but an organized group wearing white robes and enormous wings resembling angels blocked the protesters and shielded the family from hate speech.
Weeks after Matthew died, in the election of 1998, an anti-discrimination ordinance that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation was presented to voters in Fort Collins. I thought Matthew’s death and the worldwide compassion exhibited would guarantee passage as some sort of justice to make sense of his death. The measure failed 62% to 38%. I was devastated, ashamed, and angry. What will it take?!
Earlier the same year, Texan James Byrd Jr. was dragged for miles by three white supremacists behind their pickup truck while fully conscious, and died from dismemberment. In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act expanded the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Despite 11 years of repeated religious and Republican opposition — notably Colorado’s James Dobson (Focus on the Family), Senator Jeff Sessions (incoming Attorney General), and Bush 43 — President Obama signed the bill into law.
The drive to survive, that’s how individuals and tiny groups with unprecedented courage and resilience dragged America kicking and screaming into a higher consciousness, and guided our nation’s moral compass in an ethical direction of reason and fairness. The tipping point arrived when America embraced its inner sense of right and wrong through public opinion and political will — impelling its citizens toward compassion, acceptance, and understanding.
Many American citizens, religious and Republican, balk and are pushing back, believing our moral compass grossly misdirected and immoral. They would drag our nation back to the plague days of ugly apathy, bullying rectitude, and incalculable harm. Last November, they elected a candidate who epitomizes lying, greed, hypocrisy, arrogance, prejudice, and sexual abuse. Like Reagan in the 80s, he grants them license for future atrocious behaviors.
With the cataclysmic election behind us, Reagan’s odious ignominy will be swept away by this current loser of the popular vote for president, a man — and I use that term only to identify his gender — who has zero awareness, only a masturbatory love affair with his ego. I refuse (naively?) to believe this man exemplifies the consciousness of America in 2016. But if I — we — ignore him and his powerful constituency, we jeopardize our nation’s consciousness, beacon to an oppressed world, and betray its founding ideals.
Can I be like Abraham Lincoln — a man unwelcome to his Republican party of today — who faced a divided nation on the brink of civil war yet had faith in his fellow citizens could be touched “by the better angels of our nature?” Can I embody Michelle Obama’s declaration, “When they go low, we go high”?
I hope we all can. However, America’s humanity cannot be taken for granted. Redefining our national consciousness looms before us. Citizenship is not passive. It calls to each and requires work to guarantee the American heart and spirit not only survive but thrive, as they eventually did during the plague years.