It’s been over 30 years since media stories began to appear about what seemed the onset of a pandemic among gay men (and drug users). The acronym for these puzzling outbreaks on the east and west coasts was GRID. Gay Related Immune Deficiency, later to be called AIDS. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
No one – doctors, virologists, health officials, the Center for Disease Control – seemed to have a clue as to what was the cause of this growing plague, how it was spread, why it seemed to affect primarily gay men.
Given scant scientific/medical information it was little wonder that panic – with a capital P and several alarming exclamation points – set in. The panic seemed as contagious as the new disease.
Hard hit were those areas with high populations of gay men during what was called the “sexual revolution” of disco dancing, drug and popper use, bath house and backroom cruising, of the Gay Power Movement militancy of the 1970s.
(I recently watched a DVD documentary, “Gay Sex in the 70s.” Interviews were of those gay men who were in New York City at a time when sexual activity seemed nonstop. This was also true of the San Francisco Castro area. It was a time of the so-called “clone look”: Levi’s, form-fitting plaid shirts, beards, mustaches, leather.)
It helps to keep in mind that the sexual revolution of the 70s was not a gays-only happening. Straights too were getting it on happy-go-lucky – or, unlucky – sex swapping in a big way. Pent-up frustrations prevailed, following the social upheaval of the previous decade. (On a lesser, but more sexually cautious scale, the same thing happened after World War l, leading to the uninhibited Roaring Twenties.)
A bit of background history: John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968. Viet Nam War protests erupted in major cities that same year. Jonestown, with poisoning Koolade drinks that killed 909 occurred in November 1978. That same year Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected San Francisco Supervisor, was assassinated by fired SF supervisor Dan White. White’s “Twinkie defense” sentencing resulted in gay rioting.
In 1969, the Stonewall Riots happened, setting the stage for Gay Power, and ultimately the LGBT liberation we experience today. The first New York City gay/lesbian parade took place in June, 1970. Hundreds marched.
With the onset of the AIDS pandemic in 1981 gay men became pariahs. Because it was not known how AIDS was spread – could it be airborne? could it be just by touching an infected person – gay men became lepers. Restaurants known to have gay waiters were avoided. Few dared to visit quarantined wards. It would take President Ronald Reagan six years to publicly address AIDS.
Here in Detroit it was a scary time. As tallies of costal deaths climbed into the thousands, ten thousands, most of us wondered when the pandemic would hard hit here. Every spot, every cough, every bout of nausea, every ounce of weight loss, was viewed with anxiety. We asked ourselves, who’s next? Treatment was painfully slow in coming.
Many again sought frightened refuge, hoped-for safety in the closet. AIDS was relentless.