By Bruce Anderson, MSW
In 1986, I changed my life. Didn’t need to, wasn’t desperate, had nothing to run away from. My life in Denver was pretty great. Nonetheless, NYC called to me. Had an MSW from Denver University and about five years of practice under my belt. No job awaited me in NYC. Nor did I have an apartment. Nor a boyfriend! Just good friends back there who encouraged me to follow this dream. Not without significance, I’d also navigated a divorce with a woman from undergrad school and (due more to their mindfulness than my own), had left family and friends basically intact after coming out to them all.
Work in Denver had been in the disabilities community, that connection coming from growing up on a farm in Nebraska with a neighbor child who had Down’s Syndrome. Colorado and Nebraska family and friends expressed shock regarding my choice of going to NYC and, it being the mid-80’s, worried that New York was a dangerous place for a “boy” like me to move. HIV testing was still an iffy proposition, and I’d left Denver not knowing my status. Only a couple of friends there had passed.
In NYC, however, the AIDS crisis was in full swing, and I landed a very interesting job at one of our city’s AIDS Service Organizations. Pre-internet and social media, my lifeline to friends and close family relied mostly on the phone to be in touch with me back then. All had questions/concerns about my life and happiness, and all were of course interested in the AIDS epidemic here and my work at GMHC. None, however, asked about my own health and wellness. These were my nearest and dearest, including many trained professionals. And yet, and for whatever reasons, nobody worried openly and directly that I could become ill, be ill, or worse.
Spring of 2020 is quite different. We’re all 35 years older and so maybe life seems more precious to my cohort. What I’m curious about though, is that I now get daily texts, emails, and even old-fashioned phone calls about my personal wellbeing and health. Am I okay? Am I being safe? Of course, these expressions are precious to me and greatly appreciated. But, they also prompt inquiry: why now, and not back then? My risks then were equally great, and I probably felt more precarious with my health than now. AIDS was lurking. I don’t know what personal and immediate concerns other men in the city received from back home, but mine were negligible. Distant siblings, relatives, and dear friends are certainly worried about us here and more importantly, about my personal vulnerabilities. But I wonder: why does being a New Yorker elicit more concern and support in 2020 than being a gay New Yorker meant back then? And would AIDS, in and by itself, prompt a different response now? Maybe it only matters that we continue to practice what used to called “safer sex” and we now call “social distancing.”
Former President, The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, NYC.