On 5 June 1981, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published a report of five cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) among previously healthy young men in Los Angeles. They turned out to be the first documented cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
By Richard Giannone
Thirty-one years after AIDS was first officially documented, the anguish for gay men who lived through the horrible assault of stealth diseases remains vivid. The news was seismic on impact, glacial in outcome. The public recognition of the cluster of diseases was at once a relief and a terror yet to be endured. I’m seventy-seven and recall that 1981 hinge moment in gay life with an abiding sense of its damaging effects.
We need to historical perspective to grasp the anxiety of AIDS recognition. Gay life in the decades of the late 1960s and 1970s was menaced by shame and therefore driven into concealment by public censure. Even some of those who were not openly homophobic held homosexuals in wary disdain. The sudden onslaught of disease was marking gay men for additional isolation, scape-goating, and with a death sentence.
Anxiety about getting sick and dying had locked many into fearful self-concern that verged on emotional shutdown. Life as I knew it in Greenwich Village was dying out as a fusillade of deadly organisms slyly attacked gay men. Swollen lymph nodes, signs of infections, popped up during routine physical examinations. In the spring of 1981 five young men in Los Angeles came down with pneumonia from the cytomegalovirus, the herpes virus that usually resolves on its own but was life-threatening in these men. Parasitic pneumonias associated with third-world countries and rare skin tumors ordinarily found in elderly Mediterranean men were appearing in clusters of healthy young gay men in San Francisco and New York. The final quarter of the twentieth century unleashed strange agents of physical dread.Extinction shrouded gay life. Death wore a public face.
Like police raiding a gay bar, the disease outted even the most closeted gay men with a stigmatizing sweep. Private lives became public issues. A cold twilight had settled on my life and the people around me. I might say, with only slight risk of overstatement, that I was growing unaccustomed to being with people. To live happy, goes a French saying, live hidden. I, for one, settled just to live.
With all its resources and expertise, medical science remained clueless about the cause of these malignancies until 1983 when Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute in Paris identified a suspect virus. Later that year Anthony Gallo at the National Cancer Institute in Washington cultivated the virus for further investigation and human testing. The cause of these opportunistic diseases of the old and undeveloped places, now atypically presented in urban young men, was found and dubbed AIDS. The name has always struck me as a speciously friendly acronym for so mortal an enemy. Plague, scourge, pestilence, and contagion work better. It was a gnarly pathogen that kept developing new strains. Research offered a dim hope for treatment and cure.
The recognition of AIDS cases also initiated the coming of age at the very heart of gay liberation. Social responsibility changed what it meant to be gay. Like all deep transformations, this turning of the heart in full seriousness to serve others was altering gay identity.
Little by improbable little, gay people and friends responded. No slogans; no banners; no marches.
Before a media mogul bought and furnished an official building for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in Chelsea with state-of-the-art equipment, there was a set of tiny rooms above a Chase Bank branch on Sheridan Square, operated by a ragtag, unpaid staff. Here an impromptu hotline opened for the latest information about AIDS or to let worried callers know that someone was listening to them. Volunteers and social workers provided crisis counseling, legal representation, the buddy system, and whatever medical help they could before the virus was found and the test for it was developed. Clients came to this warren as though entering a speakeasy. One rang a bell, spoke into the intercom, went through the buzzed door, and walked up two flights to a small oasis of support.
Though the New York Times did not use the term “gay” in its style guide until 1985, the gay rights movement was maturing. The revolution of sexual freedom gave way to the counterrevolution of ethical responsibility. By necessity, people who could not find the services available in mainstream society learned to care for one another. Angels, as Tony Kushner’s play influentially showed, were broadcasting messages in America. The misshapen bodies of the messengers were the message. The disease that seemed to put an end to freewheeling gay life more influentially brought us all to a new and momentous self-understanding. Gay political activism was on the way to changing medical and social practice.
Richard Giannone, emeritus professor at Fordham University, is the author of Hidden: Reflections on Gay Life, AIDS and Spiritual Desire.