I recalled the vicious characterization by Pat Buchanan, Reagan’s Chief of “Communications,” who spoke for many by calling AIDS nature’s “awful retribution” that did not deserve a thorough and compassionate response, and later said:
With 80,000 dead of AIDS, our promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide.”
Uninformed and prejudicial statements coming from the White House and the halls of Congress, from the State Houses, and yes, from some houses of worship during those trying times only encouraged the ceaseless bigotry and discriminatory actions against people with HIV, including Ryan White, a young HIV-positive boy with hemophilia who posed virtually no risk to his classmates, but his middle school administrators expelled him from school nonetheless; all of this while the AIDS Project patchwork quilt expanded exponentially day-by-day.
I recalled the day a close friend of mine, a young man of 23, disclosed to me that he tested HIV-positive and that early signs of disease had already begun to appear. I was extremely upset. Soon after he told me, I needed to clear my head, and I took a walk around my neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As I traveled around Harvard Square with the shoppers dashing in and out of the stores and the students carrying books through Harvard Yard, I felt as though I were venturing through an absurdist dream where out-of-sync parallel realities collided. (Yes, indeed, Larry Kramer, you nailed it! We were at war, and for many reasons, we still are.)
Since in those early years, HIV/AIDS affected most visibly what some called the “4H Club” – Homosexuals, Haitians, Intravenous Heroin Drug Users, and People with Hemophilia – all but the latter considered as “disposables” at that time, governmental and many social institutions refused to take wide-scale action. One can reasonably argue that if the majority of people with HIV/AIDS initially had been middle-class, white, suburban heterosexual males, rather than gay and bisexual males, trans* people, people of color, working-class people, sex workers, and drug users, we would have immediately seen massive mobilizations to defeat the virus.
This week, I felt once again the infinite pain of losing so many of my beautiful and gentle friends. During those awful years, my pain eventually rose to anger turning to rage, a rage finally given expression by a grassroots people’s’ empowerment movement.