By William Self
“I felt sick.”
“I went to the Doctor and was tested.”
“I’m positive and there’s nothing they can do.”
“They think I’ll recover.”
We heard these words very often during 2020 and the current COVID-19 pandemic. But they were first heard in the early 1980s; only then there was no recovery, only rapid decline, any number of immune related diseases and death.
July 3, 1981 New York Times: “Rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals”.
For those of us opening the Times that morning, nothing would be the same. (See the film Longtime Companion.) For a time life went on, as we thought “not me” and “party gays” never thinking that one day it would be 40 years and tears and too many deaths later. And from Designing Women to a very special ABC afternoon special to prime time drug ads.
So what was learned? Holding the FDA accountable; freeing up experimental and/or compassionate use drugs; showing it wasn’t a gay, Haitian, drug user illness, but instead included Ryan White, Arthur Ashe, an Esme Hammond, wife of the record producer John Hammond and descendant of the Vanderbilts and Sloanes.
So flash forward and where are we? A pandemic illness that infects by the air instead of sex. A pandemic illness that created a different class of “other”—aged, Asian, foreign, poor—which allowed it to run rampant as easily as a gay bar back room.
What is the same? A virus that attacks all parts of the body creating any number of medical conditions: pneumonia, diabetes, gastrointestinal disease, dementia, and so on. And what has happened differently? Once it crossed over into the general population: A mad rush in searching, creating and distributing drugs and vaccines.
And our future? Emerging viruses are just that; they have been and will always be somewhere until a time when they can enter the animal and human vector chain. Whether HIV or COVID or some other retro-or influenza virus, we will need to learn as a society to react and protect ourselves, develop resistance and cures, and work together to ensure we are ready.
William Self is the librarian for Lenox Hill Hospital/Northwell Health. Together with his husband, Kevin Uhrin, William is a mentor to numerous LGBTQ organizations and their leaders. They were recently profiled in Lived Experiences: Reflections on LGBTQ Life by Delphine Diallo, The New Press 2020.