By Mark Schulte
I’ll never forget the first time I heard about AIDS. When I was a kid it was my “job” to collect the mail each day. My mother had a subscription to Newsweek magazine which she read from cover to cover, and she considered it the ultimate authority on any subject. She would usually read it while sitting on the toilet in the bathroom, using a sheet of toilet paper as a bookmark or to note an article that my dad, brother, or myself should read.
I’ll never forget the day in the summer of 1983 that the infamous “Gay America” cover arrived in the mailbox. I didn’t give it to my parents, but kept it to read in secret as I was not out to them yet. It was the first time that I had read about AIDS/HIV and I became quite afraid. I was about to start my freshman year at Georgetown University in the fall and had every intention of being an active participant in the campus GPGU (Gay People of Georgetown University) as well as the larger DC gay community. We only called it gay at the time, as the other letters came much later. I was finally about to jump in head first, but now there was this AIDS thing to be concerned about.
I was an active participant now that I could go to gay bars, baths, parties, clubs, events, etc. without the watchful eyes of my parents. I joined GPGU, becoming its president in my senior year, as well as the local gay youth group at DC’s Gay Community Center. I felt so free and liberated to finally connect with my peers. Nevertheless, AIDS was always an ominous presence. Although the disease was first documented by my friend Larry Mass in 1981, it was not until 1987 that President Reagan even first uttered the word AIDS, despite numerous rumors that his own son was gay. We watched helplessly as our friends began to get sick and die. Peoples’ bodies became covered with purple Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions, so much so that they resembled Barney from children’s TV. That hunky muscular stud that you lusted for at the bar now looked like a thin Holocaust victim, seemingly overnight. Everyone was scared stiff, worried about every freckle and pimple, yet there was still no action from the government.
So we formed our own AIDS organizations to care for ourselves, developed our own safe(r) sex guidelines which we encouraged all to follow, created the AIDS memorial quilt as a symbolic visual, and engaged in activism, which all culminated in the National March on Washington and the first display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on Columbus Day weekend in 1987. Still, the government dragged its heels until the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) by Larry Kramer after a fiery speech at the Second Tuesday Lecture Series at the NYC Gay Community Center. We made the decision to force the government’s hand, and we were successful. We made it so that the situation could no longer be ignored just because it was happening to “us” and not to “them.” I distinctly remember, at a subsequent display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt at the Ellipse, the helicopter of then President George H.W. Bush flew right over it and we jumped up and down yelling for him to see us and help us. I’ll leave it to historians to decide whether or not he did. Our “Enemy #1” at the time was none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NAIAD). We protested against him at an infamous “Storm the NIH” demonstration on May 21, 1990, nearly 30 years ago.
Contrast this to the COVID-19 situation. For me it was the exact opposite. I was living my normal life when I started hearing about this strange new virus coming out of Wuhan, China that was making people sick and killing them. In the space of the week from March 9-16, 2020 the government had locked everything down. I had to stay home and could no longer go to work, church, the courthouse, a gallery, the library, a party, ANYWHERE! Meanwhile, I didn’t know anyone who was sick. I wasn’t sick. My friends weren’t sick. I heard stories on TV and read articles in the paper about thousands of people who were sick and dying, yet it was like being in a vacuum. Unlike AIDS, it wasn’t personal; it was anonymous, and I began to majorly resent the government requiring me to wear a mask in public and depriving me of the freedom to live my life the way I wanted to. It was similar to the way I resented having to wear a condom, though at least I understood the rationale for that. In this case I did not, and began to wonder if COVID wasn’t a hoax after all even though I remembered vividly the AIDS deniers that claimed that it was a hoax. It definitely wasn’t!
I’m still in a state of uncertainty about COVID now. Although I usually get tested for COVID once every month or so and, thankfully, have tested negative so far, I continue to have my doubts. Scientists still haven’t come up with an AIDS/HIV vaccine, 40 years later, though obviously there have been medical advances like the “cocktail” and, more recently, PREP. I’ve been asked to trust the expertise of Dr. Fauci even though he was our nemesis years ago. Why should we trust these rapidly discovered COVID vaccines whose long-term effects are still unknown? At least one has already killed some people. Ultimately, it will likely be an incentive like a free round trip LIRR ticket to Fire Island that will inspire me to get vaccinated, rather than the COVID vaccine itself.
In the end I find myself every bit as resentful of the government’s actions around COVID as I am of their inactions around AIDS!
Mark Schulte is an AIDS/Queer activist, adventurer/explorer, and a former Queer nightlife columnist.