On May 27, the world lost a giant in the history of the LGBTQ community, Larry Kramer, noted author, playwright, producer, public health advocate, LGBTQ rights activist, and so much more. Those who do not know his story will hopefully learn about him through the multitude of articles and documentaries that will certainly show up in the near future. In order to gain a sense of the history of a large part of the gay community, one does need to know about Kramer.
This, however, is not a piece about him, but about the parallels and differences between the current COVID-19 pandemic and the AIDS crisis in the US during the 1980’s and early 90’s. Opinions vary, or they wouldn’t be very interesting, and I value the opportunity to share some of mine.
For the past two months, I’ve been thinking how familiar this pandemic felt, as though I had lived through something like it before. Last evening, I watched the movie The Normal Heart for the umpteenth time. Released in 2014, it was based on Kramer’s play which was originally produced off-Broadway in 1985. As the film ended, I realized that I have lived through an epidemic, one that devastated nearly the entire LGBTQ community. Many behaviors, attitudes and results can be compared between the AIDS epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic.
How it Began
AIDS. Unknown at first, then Ebola and Africa were targeted
COVID. China blamed immediately, depth of infections unknown at first
Both were rumored to have been ‘brought here’ or ‘sent here’
Convincing People about the Danger
AIDS. For the first year or so, some gay men in cities, like San Francisco and New York, did not believe there was a disease that was killing them, until it escalated. Some went to their death not believing they needed to play safe.
COVID. The US is over three months in, the numbers are staggering & increasing, and many people still do not believe this is a virus that can hurt or kill them.
Government leaders giving little or no direction early on
AIDS. During the 1980’s, the word AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) was not mentioned by the President or anyone in Washington, DC until the crisis was well on its way. Time lost.
COVID. For the first several months of 2020, other countries acknowledged an illness that seemed like a virus and named it; the US, however, took its time to distribute that information publicly. Time lost.
Scientific Information Disseminated and Embraced
AIDS. Localized, grass roots for a long time, each city seemed to have its own way to get the word out. No information from the federal government. Some felt like we were on our own, even in the mid-80’s when there was no denying the ongoing rise in the number of cases/deaths.
COVID. Localized through some state governments, no grassroots movements early or now. All states handling it differently, few states handling it well earlier. Eventually, the federal government provided news conferences, scientific updates, using TV and social media. A handful of governors stepped up and rescued their states.
AIDS and COVID. A dedicated scientist, and passionate & fearless researcher, has told us what we needed to know. The same man who was with us in the ‘80’s is with us now, speaking truth. Dr. Anthony Fauci was one of the first, and certainly most dedicated, medical professionals to lead us to understanding about AIDS, what needed to be done, how people could be saved. As we see him now, a bit older with some gray in his hair, he still speaks the truth, a voice of reason. I find it incredible that in my lifetime, we have had two major health crises, and the same scientist/researcher has been with us, shedding light when no one else was. Hero.
Suggested Behaviors to Stop the Spread
AIDS. Close the bathhouses, wear condoms/stop being sexual, don’t share needles, or any bodily fluids. Some people at risk did not heed the early warnings. Multiple years.
COVID. Isolate, quarantine, wear a mask, wear gloves, wash your hands, stand at least 6 feet from other people. Don’t go into crowded places, stay home, stay alone. No hugs, no handshakes. People at risk, in many places, are still not heeding these warnings. Multiple months.
AIDS. HIV testing, first through government health departments, was not private, not anonymous, and held many terrible consequences for those found out to be positive. Thirty-five years ago, gay people were not afforded the same rights or privileges as today. A positive diagnosis of HIV often translated to loss of living quarters, loss of job, loss of family, loss of friends, and loss of financial stability. The stigma devastated relationships, careers, and positive mental health. Seen as a death sentence.
COVID. Widespread testing for this virus has taken too long. By the time the outbreak was acknowledged by government officials, so many had contracted, then spread the coronavirus, that it spiraled out of control. The virus was much more prevalent in the African American community, a community already compromised with access issues for health care. The elderly, early on found to become sicker and die faster, still haven’t been seen, on the national level, as a group, we should protect by targeting assisted living quarters or nursing homes. And too many Americans have not isolated or worn masks, putting themselves in harm’s way, and refuse to be tested.
Champions of the Cause
AIDS. There are champions, people who–as well as organizations that were begun and continue to–offer assistance, information, loving care, and solace to our community. Larry Kramer co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York. He started ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in 1987. Here in the New Orleans area, NO/AIDS Task Force began humbly, and now is known as CrescentCare Health Facility, servicing a much larger community and a diverse population, although the AIDS work there has never stopped. There are other facilities as well, and people dedicated to the LGBTQ community’s health and wellness. We fight on, it is not over.
COVID. Not sure about champions as yet, except the heroes in the health care systems dealing with this. Our Governor and Mayor have done their best to protect our city and state. They have been unpopular at times, unrelenting in the belief that we have to stay apart in order to go forward; I, however, remain thankful to them. And we fight on, careful and respectful of others. COVID is nowhere near over, but we are making great strides.
Stay healthy, stay safe. I miss all the things you all miss. And I value all of you.