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It’s been nearly 40 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 is 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, hard-leather 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, studded cod pieces.)
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 I, leading to the uninhibited Roaring ’20s.)
A bit of background history: John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968. Vietnam War protests erupted in major cities that same year. Jonestown, with poisoning Kool Aid drinks that killed 909 religious cult followers, occurred in November 1978.
That same calamitous year Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected San Francisco Supervisor, was assassinated by fired San Francisco supervisor Dan White. White’s “Twinkie defense” sentencing resulted in turbulent gay rioting. Cars overturned and set on fire! City Hall Glass shattering! Cop baiting!
In 1969, the Stonewall Riots soon followed, 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 collective 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, but a little too casually, to address AIDS.
Here in Detroit it was a scary time. As tallies of coastal deaths climbed into the hundreds, thousands and more, 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. (A close friend of mine was among the first to die of AIDS in Detroit. He complained of purple body spots that resisted on-going treatment.) AZT, a harsh cancer treatment developed in Detroit, was introduced. Side effects hastened full-blown AIDS symptoms.
Many sought frightened refuge, hoped-for safety in the closet. AIDS was relentless. Ten more close acquaintances of mine would follow in the ’90s. Mortality numbers grew and grew. Pandemic terror . . . times . . . God only knows . . . how many . . .