Gay Men Share What Is Was Like Coming Out During The AIDS Crisis.
The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s ravaged the gay community in North America. There was so much uncertainty surrounding the deaths of so many young men, only to be complicated additionally by their sexual orientation. This, along with the potential society backlash, made coming out at that time especially difficult.
Here, gay men reveal what is was like coming out during the AIDS crisis.
1. I was just coming out at the time that AIDS came into public awareness ( I was 25 at the time). I had moved to Denver to kind of find myself and figure things out...to get away from my hometown. Not knowing anyone in Denver, I of course started making friends. Unfortunately, what happened was that a few months after I'd make a friend, they'd pass away from complications of AIDS. I attended just over 20 funerals the first year I was there.
It was a scary time. Not only the fear of AIDS, but I started getting to where I was afraid to try to make any friends knowing that the chance of them dying from AIDS was extremely high.
There was also the fear of not knowing the specifics of how the disease was transmitted. It was strongly believed at the time it was sexual, but there was no information on other methods of transmitting it...casual contact? kissing? sharing eating utensils? No one knew, and everyone in the gay community was afraid.
Over time, AIDS wiped out an entire generation of gay men. This has had an effect on the more recent generations since people that would normally have been mentors, big brother figures, teachers, etc. were gone, so the younger generation lost out on the wisdom and experience of the previous one.
The worst thing was when my first gay friend (and my best friend), came to me two years after I moved back home, that he had AIDS. He told me how scared he was, and that he didn't want to die. He was one of the first group that was put on AZT as the one and only treatment at the time. He died 8 months later.
2. Imagine you are in your mid-20s, have a large circle of friends, and have had sex with maybe 20-30 guys. Then imagine by the time you reach 30, you've watched 90 percent of those people die a slow, painful death which left them looking like frail, old men. Some of us didn't have to imagine it, we lived it.
It took about five years to put the pieces together and identify HIV and means of transmission. I think most of the infections took place during that time. There was a lot of denial. And there was all-out panic and confusion. When the first HIV test became available, doctors often advised not getting it because there was absolutely no treatment and nothing you could do about it; it was a death sentence. Some people chose suicide as an alternative.
Most gays at the time were not "out" -- that came later largely as a response to the AIDS epidemic. AIDS "outed" a lot of people. Rock Hudson comes to mind as one of the first and most well-known.
3. My uncle died of aids in 1991. He was a doctor, he was a wonderful philanthropist, he was a loving person, but he most often gets remembered for being gay and getting aids. In Mexico that was probably the worst thing you could have been outed for in that day. It caused more drama in my family than I can ever imagine.
All of his friends had it, they're all dead now. My mom recalls a chaotic fear at the time, he was treated like a leper and only my mom and aunt would go anywhere near him. He felt so alone and scared. Suddenly all his accomplishments in life were worthless because he liked men. RIP Tio, you were more than that.
4. Neither gay nor male; I'm a presbyterian minister and have had gay friends all my life. I watched as friends from high school died without knowing why--saw friends in seminary (I was in seminary in the early 80s) grow sad and fearful--and like the man you described, went to or conducted funerals about every two weeks. I've made at least one quilt panel in every congregation I've served... and you're right. The disease erupted so quickly, and was so disfiguring, that so many people were "outed" by the disease. Good news, if there was any, is that many communities of faith stepped up & had AIDS ministries, without judgment or precondition.
Once the antiviral cocktails made HIV something you live with rather than die from, the backlash came.
5. I can weigh in here for my brother because he can't. My brother passed a few years ago from HIV. When he died, he was one of the longest living HIV patients in the U.S.
He was diagnosed at 17 and lived a few months past his 40th birthday.
He talked about going to the bar and hearing someone was sick, and they'd die a couple of days later. It happened a lot. Once he was diagnosed, he started living his life like he had a week left, and he did that for over 20 years. Lots of drugs, drinking, armed robbery, prison, prostitution, abuse. It was hard to watch.
By the time he passed, he was pretty beat down because all of his friends were gone. It was extremely sad to watch.
6. I cannot imagine what this scenario was like on either an emotional or intellectual level. I met a man who told me that he went to a funeral every week or two in New York City in the early 80s.
7. I heard from an older gay gentleman that it set back the gay rights movement years of progress. Starting in the 60's and continuing through the 70's, gay rights was progressing strongly. But AIDS, being dubbed "the gay plague", really set the movement back. People viewed it (and still do) as God "putting his foot down on the gay epidemic".
He was very down trodden speaking about it because he knew really good people who died because of it, and their deaths were used as fodder to dampen the gay rights movement. Very sad.
8. I was 15 in 1980 and knew I was gay and was starting to feel positive about it. Times seemed to be changing enough that I felt it would be okay when I grew up. One example was that there was a sitcom me and my mom would watch called Soap (1977-1981) that had a gay character (I think it was the first gay character on a tv show) played by Billy Crystal who had been married and had a kid before coming out; there was a scene where he was in court fighting for custody for his kid (the ex-wife was horrible person but thought she'd win because her ex-husband was a filthy gay) -- when the judge announced he won custody my mom started cheering. So I was optimistic about the future.
Then the disaster crushingly came. The first I heard about the disease was in my dad's Hustler magazine. They had a short news story about a strange new cancer that's only killing gay men and it was thought to be caused by amyl nitrite (also known as poppers).
By my senior year in '83, everyone knew about AIDS and that it was sexually transmitted, but that was about all we knew. I had a few gay friends my age and we were all scared and kind of fatalistic. Just when we thought our adult years would be open and positive, now there's this. It was devastating. I lived in the deep south and I heard so frequently how it was God's punishment (story continued on the next page...).
During my senior year in high school I had great straight friends 20 years old who had just married and lived in this old Victorian house that was divided up into apartments. On their floor was this gay man about 40 who had AIDS. He was the first I knew that had it. He was in the "wasting" stage. He was really so thin and frail, but still had to work at his cashiers job. His life was brutally hard as his family would have nothing to do with him. My friends helped him out as much as they could. My visits to him broke my heart and also terrified me. Was this my future?
Anyways, I ended up in a gay marriage when I was really young (21 in '86) and we've been together since. About two years into our relationship I got really scared that we were both infected from our very few sexual encounters we had before we got together. We got tested. That was one of the scariest things I've ever done - the wait for the results was hell. "Negative" never sounded so sweet!
We've never been much into the "gay community" (we're both kinda homebody introverts) and thus have known very few that had it. However, last year I lost a longtime friend who contracted it around '87.
9. I just lost so many friends. So many good, kind-hearted, beautiful people died during that time. It makes you feel guilty, being one of the lucky who did not contract HIV. I used to get so angry and mad about seeing all this death around me, especially when it seemed the public as a whole would rather ignore it.
10. I'm a little late to the game. I'm not gay nor was I an adult in the 80's, but I went with my mother to two beauty salons, one where she got her hair done and one where the nail lady was. Both places had mostly male hair dressers, and they were all gay. AIDS decimated both of those beauty shops. My mom tried to explain what was going on in terms a six-year-old could understand, but I don't think it really clicked until later how terrifying it must have been in the gay community at that time.
In particular, I remember this fairly flamboyant man named Stephen who did hair next to my mom's hair dresser. He was nice and always put up with me talking to him and asking stupid kid questions. One time we went, and Stephen was not at his station. I asked this other guy, Nick, where Stephen was. Nick told me that Stephen had gotten sick, gone blind, and died. Then, a couple of visits later, Nick was also dead.
11. In the late 80's and early 90's, I lived in Atlanta. My family was very active in the Catholic Church. One day, around 5 am, my dad and I packed up to head into downtown Atlanta, and went into this sort of ramshackle old house. It turned out that this was a hospice set up by Mother Theresa's Missionaries of Charity for gay men dying from AIDS.
I will never forget what that place was like. Everyone there was in the "wasting" stage of the virus. All the men were frail, incredibly underweight, and gaunt. And the silence. People were so afraid of the virus that no one came to visit these folks, even in 1991 when we were well aware of how it spread. The nuns there were the only people who would get near them. My mind could barely comprehend the fact that everyone who had a bed in that hospice would be dead in less than 6 months at that point.
I am not a religious person per se, but another striking moment was when I asked an old nun if God was punishing these men. She wheeled around and locked eyes with me and said "no, God loves them. Life punishes men." That's always stuck with me when I hear fundamentalist nut cases talking about AIDS being a punishment from on high.
12. I was 18 in 1980. I left boarding school that year and came to London. I was slated for University but decided to take time out. The first thing I did was join a gay youth group and move in with a bunch of gay men most of whom were activist types.
For a couple of years I divided my time between the gay scene - or parts of it anyway - and getting involved politically. The scene was fairly low key really and it was very diverse: there were a lot of alternative and community based social spaces. I had a great time and I made the friends who changed my life. I had lots of sex; lots of lovers (usually serially, sometimes not); I spent too much time in workshops whining about straight men (thank god I'm over that one). I lived in squats and went to parties where George, Marilyn, and various bronskis hung out. I argued in political meetings about the labour party with Peter Tatchell and lobbied council meetings. Fun times.
Then in 1982/3 we started to hear about the disease (story continued on the next page...).
The information at first was vague and difficult to interpret but one thing that happened 1n 1982 or 3 for me was that I met a man who had been in California very recently and he insisted that we use condoms during sex. I remember we had a long talk and he told me what he'd heard in the US. I was convinced enough by that and the rest of what I was hearing to 1) become a complete condom convert 2) start agitating about the disease wherever I could.
Looking back, I wonder how it was that so many of my friends survived while so many others were taken around us. I honestly don't know. I went to my share of funerals - one where the preacher tried to use the eulogy to preach damnation and bigotry while family and friends looked on: we put a stop to that I remember - and I cried my way through the slow deaths of friends and lovers: we had to learn how to do that, how to be with people while they died. And the annual memorial services waiting to hear what names might be read out. But, somehow, my own close circle only lost a few. I think I know why and without wishing to offend anyone, I'm sure it was because being politically plugged in we were early safer sex adopters.
13. Being gay, and having an absolute aversion to anal sex; I just understood why. I was born in the 80's and knew what Karposi's sarcoma was at age 8 because there was a man, 20 years old, dying in a nursing home, where my mom worked (as a nurse) of an unknown virus. I remember hearing from other people in the nursing home, right before Andy died that he probably got it from gay sex. My mom was the only nurse that wasn't afraid to care for him, be in the room with him, and be by his side until he died. He never saw 21. His parents, both alive at the time, never came to see him, not once, because he was gay. Once I knew I was gay I knew I could never risk ending up like Andy, I couldn't do that to my mom again. I never realized until right now, how much this really impacted me, and scared the piss outta me.
14. My uncle was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-80's and eventually died in 1989. I was rather young at the time (12 or 13), but there are two very distinct things that I remember about him: First, that whatever he was afflicted with had completely transformed him. I don't know if was the treatment or what, but he had taken to wearing women's pumps and walking through the streets of San Francisco proclaiming, "I'm a miracle!" This was a man who had gone to Pepperdine. He was incredibly sweet, articulate, intelligent, and his wit as I recall was razor sharp. This disease (or whatever the treatments were at the time) had destroyed the person I knew.
Second: The last time I ever spoke with him on the telephone I knew the second I handed to phone to my mother (who he had called and asked to speak to before exchanging "what's new with you's"), that it would be the last time I ever spoke with him.
I was correct.
15. From my partner who fits your description:
"Since HIV infection with Kaposi's sarcoma was very obvious by 1978-79, inside the gay community if you were a little intelligent you knew that something very drastic was going on because people that we knew already infected and dying. The exact ramifications of safe sex and the methods of transmission were not known, but it was obvious to everyone that transmission was going to end up being something sexual. Probably anal sex, which turned out to be correct."
16. In 1984 I was arrested on an protest against aids abuse and spent time in prison.
I found myself more or less settled with one boy and I decided to go to university. I nearly flunked my first year because of the miners' strike. During that strike we organized an LGBT support campaign for the strikers based on earlier experience in the ant-Murdoch strikes. I remember the utter confusion when we arrived in mining communities in south wales armed with food parcels - but it was great and I know it changed attitudes all round.
After that strike, the gay scene changed. Of course, AIDS awareness became a central part of the scene and as a result activism was professionalized as part of public health. To some extent, LGBT awareness made it mainstream piggybacking on a public health issue. To be frank, our old style confrontationist activism was out of place post-AIDS.
So, I made my way into the new social scene a bit. Over the years that followed a few friends became ill, just a few, but it is always a personal blow. By the late 80s/early90s we were seeing new treatments come out of the research labs that were able to significantly prolong lives. The funerals had started to tail off some time before and now they faded from horror to normality. I thought that would be a linear process. I got on with my job and did some community work - partly because the new mainstream gay scene didn't suit me, old reprobate queer that I am.
A decade later two things happened that galvanized me (story continued on the next page...)
1. AIDS in Africa and 2.,the prevalence of risky sex among young gay boys. Now those two things consume me. The devastation in Africa makes me angry enough to start the revolution over again. It's predominantly caused by politics: the politics of aid; the politics of religion and the corrupt politics of local chauvinism and of course the market model of drug development and distribution. It's intolerable that Africa should have to go through this so I have something to do.
Then there's the kids. I can't remember when I first heard about the lack of safer sex awareness among young gay boys but that made me move to and it gets me out of the house.
17. My dads first response was to give blood. He was already a blood donor, but this is generally his response to any widespread health crisis. Like the swine flu outbreak, he gave blood for that one too.
18. I was in San Francisco in the early 80's. I was in my early 20's and just had moved there when people started dying. I had to leave 10 years later because I was so clinically depressed that my doctor and psychiatrist both said, "San Francisco is more about death and dying for you than living you need to leave". In that 10 years every friend I had made after moving there and people I had just met were dying off so quickly that I just become numb. I couldn't react anymore to news that someone was sick or dead. Combine that with the fear that every time I had sex, you think that maybe this is when I get infected or this is when I infect someone else.
When I found out that I was HIV positive in January 1987 - they said - 'This is not death sentence people are now living a year or even 2 with this disease". That was 25 years ago and I'm still alive. Not on any of the new drugs, mostly out of fear since everyone I knew that when on AZT and the other early drugs are now dead. Plus, once you go on them, you're on them for life. Without healthcare that means you could be dependent on a lifesaving drug and then not be able to get it. So I still live with this everyday.
To end on a more uplifting note, gay men in the US I believe made the greatest change in behavior and social change in such a short period of time by practicing safer sex, having fewer partners and pushing the government and industry to fight this awful disease. I'm proud to be gay and to have lived when I did because the whole world benefits from all of the protest and sit-ins and yelling we did to bring about changes to politics and healthcare.
19. In June 1982, a CDC report theorized an unknown viral disease that could be transmitted by blood and sexual contact, but also proposed it could be a result of drug use.
In August 1982, the CDC renamed it from Gay-related Immune Deficiency (GRID) to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome - AIDS, given the overwhelming evidence that it was affecting not only gay men and that it was likely an infectious agent.
And these were fucking terrifying times. No one knew what the infectious agent was, precisely how it was transmitted, whether it was a combination of factors such as drug use + the agent, etc.
So from the first reports to a general consensus that it's a new, unknown virus took about 18 months.
HIV was isolated first in May 1983, and again with confirmation in May 1984. Confirmation that this virus caused AIDS was established in the 1984-1985 timeframe so, so the etiological agent was isolated about 3 years after the first reports.
That's not to say, that communicating this information to the public, or even many people in the medical profession, was easy. While public health was often, from the start, very matter of fact in addressing the issue, politicians and the media were often hysterical and irrational. A lot of people were completely in the dark until the late 1980s.
20. Want testimony from the late eighties? There were still funerals every week then. There was still very much confusion about precisely how transmission was happening. By then there was overreaction (every lesbian I knew used dental dams), there were people who just didn't care, many people who just assumed being gay meant they were going to die, and there were, say the HIV is a lie people... making what could still seem like a plausible argument.
Something I'd really like younger people to understand. I'm bisexual, and had multiple partners in that time who were or thought they were positive. Once I reached San Francisco and got the safe sex literature and free condoms on the streets I was meticulously safe, always. But something important for people to understand is, once you took the right precaution, it was worth it to risk death for love and sex, it was an act of essential defiance and brotherhood and sisterhood.
21. Howard Ashman, better known as the lyricist half of the songwriting duo for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, was gay- and had a partner- in the 80s. He ended up dying from AIDS just before Beast came out. According to his sister's blog, many of his gay friends died before he did. One of his friends called it "the gay cancer," and some believed it was caused by the use of poppers in the community. Of course, it was all kept a big secret- he continued to work on the films until his death, but they had to move parts of production to New York to do so, and only a few people knew why. Great man, terrible tragedy.
22. AIDS stole my youth even without infecting me. I was a teenager in the 1980s, and AIDS was strong factor that made me repress my sexuality for a long time, remained virgin till my mid-thirties. Accepting your sexuality is hard when gay people appear on the media only as gaunt, walking dead men.
23. I'm not gay, but I was in college from 77-81 and I would buy and read the NY Times every day. I started to see small articles buried deep in the paper about an incurable disease that was hitting gay men, and seemed to be sexually transmitted. At first it had no name, and then it became GRID (Gay-related immunodeficiency disease). I don't know why other people weren't paying attention at first. Just because this incurable, always deadly disease was affecting gay men then, didn't mean it couldn't be contracted by the population at large.
24. I am 31 and a lesbian and I just want to say thank you.
We, the younger generation, appreciate you and wouldn't be here if not for you. Thank you to everyone who came before me, those who lived, those who did not, those who were out, those who were not, in every place and every situation.
Thank you for Stonewall, thank you for defeating Anita Bryant so I can be an out teacher, thank you for teaching us what bravery means, thank you for the laws we do have in place as safeguards, thank you for our movement, thank you for existing.
I am a very outspoken activist in my personal and professional life, and that is a privilege I only have because of you. Please keep telling your stories, if you can, because they save us. You are our history and our family.
I'm sorry you were ignored, belittled, abused, shunned, and threatened by family, the police, strangers, society and government. I do everything I can think of to try to prevent that from happening now and in the future. And I never forget.
I celebrate and mourn you at every political rally I go to, every AIDS Walk I participate in, and every Pride event I attend. The world is still not perfect, but we're moving so quickly and yet so slowly and I hope you know that we will carry on your legacy. We will not forget you, nor will we forget what you've done. We may not say it often enough, but let me speak for the West Hollywood and San Diego (Hillcrest) communities, both of which I consider myself a part, and for communities and individuals all over the world: we love you.
I have never had the opportunity in a default, non-specifically LGBTQ space, to thank my own community, and never on this level, so I hope that you see this and know that you are my family. You, and every other LGBTQQIAAAP person, closeted or out; past, present, or future.
I love you.
And I am thankful for you.
Fame always come with a price!
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