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Though perhaps unspoken among gay men and doctors nearly 40 years ago when the AIDS crisis started, the presumption of a death sentence was understood.
When the HIV-3 retrovirus was identified and infection modes publicized — unprotected oral and anal sex, drug usage, multiple partners, STDs and over reliance on therapeutic antibiotics — gay men were told if they tested positive it was time to get personal effects in order.
AZT was the first powerhouse drug offered, hopefully to extend life expectancy for a few precious months, perhaps a year, often just weeks. (Many who stopped taking it lived longer.)
AZT was developed at Detroit’s Cancer Center; used briefly for cancer patients but soon abandoned because of highly toxic side effects: iatrogenic pathologies that mirrored, or, some pharmacists maintained, caused all of the AIDS-related symptoms: radical weight loss, pneumocystis pneumonia, purple lesions, dementia, low platelet counts. AZT was the drug-of-hard-choice. Take it or leave it!
How many gay men died of doing just that is a legitimate question. In spite of the physician’s Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm,” AZT was scripted.
(The chemist who invented AZT lived in the same Cultural Center apartment building where I lived for 25 years. He was also gay, had an extensive classical music collection, frequently quarreled with his much younger partner, once locking him naked out of their fifth floor apartment.)
The stigma of being HIV positive or, dramatically worse, of exhibiting unmistakable AIDS symptoms like Kaposi’s Sarcoma skin lesions contributed to a mutual silence of shame among gay men. The Reagan White House saw the pandemic as unfortunately deserved. If gay men weren’t so promiscuous they wouldn’t be dying by the thousands.
(Hollywood name star Rock Hudson, who died of AIDS in 1985, was a personal friend of First Lady Nancy Reagan. Other prominent personalities who received “hush hush” treatment included one-time President Trump mentor, attorney Roy Cohn, and Liberace. They were deemed acceptable persons, even though they just might happen to be, well, er, you know, gay. They weren’t however codpiece militants.)
For conservative politicians, AIDS was putting a dramatic end to the Gay Power Liberation Movement and in-America’s-face militancy exhibited in places like San Francisco, New York, Chicago and other cities with large gay populations. “AIDS will shove them back into the closet or, better still, into an early grave!”
There is an AIDS genocide conspiracy theory: that the retrovirus, or a lethal variant, was introduced during the mid-1970s hepatitis inoculation programs in the East and West coasts. Documentation for this alarming so-called “biowarfare” viewpoint can be read in the controversial, “Queer Blood: The Secret AIDS Genocide,” by Dr. Alan Cantwell. Cantwell is himself gay.
During the early decades of the AIDS crisis the government initiated little public support or funding. President Ronald Reagan made no mention of AIDS while in office. It wasn’t until AIDS activists became loudly vocal. Demanding! Marching! Staging sit-ins! that things slowly changed.
Gays, lesbians, and straight allies took charge, developing education and testing programs, buddy one-on-one systems, safe-sex strategies, fund-raisers, shelters for AIDS care; and, importantly, offering loving support with requisite human dignity and respect.
In Detroit, Aids Partnership Michigan, Michigan AIDS Prevention Project, Wellness AIDS Services, Affirmations LGBT Center Switchboard Outreach were there often 24/7 for early and later exposure HIV and AIDS afflicted persons, who were confused, frightened, consistently shunned as societal pariahs.
Outstanding dedicated, local AIDS activists included Dr. Evelyn Fisher, Barbara Murray, Kenny Rose, Craig Covey, Rick Robinson, Ph. D., Lindsay Wright-El; and — often uniting for the very first time in common cause alliance — numerous brave, compassionate, courageous gay and lesbian volunteers.
Memento mori. Today’s right-wing,”religious freedom” hatred of LGBTs is spreading. Our lives are once more being infected. The new plague — Acquired Intolerance Determination Syndrome — is in the political pulpit. Speak out! Fight back! Hate is contagious!