National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 51: In the Valley of the Shadow Of Death and Sorrow

The “AIDS Dark Age” was horrific beyond words. For most of us, it extended from July 5, 1981 to December 30, 1996, starting with the New York Times’ first public report of a new “gay cancer” and ending when Time magazine named Dr. David Ho the “Man of the Year” for finding how to prevent AIDS from being an automatic death sentence.

Its toll among gay men is estimated at 400,000 deaths. Every gay man who’d been within spitting distance of a gay establishment in the previous decade feared, if not learned, the worst, never knowing if a cough or a blemish might signal the onset of a monstrous death.

The HIV virus causing AIDS was especially cruel because of its long incubation period, leaving unsuspecting carriers symptom-free an average of five years, all the while unwittingly spreading it in an era when condoms were never used. It began silently spreading among core groups of hyper-promiscuous urban gay men in the mid-1970s, before first erupting as “frank” AIDS in the summer of 1981.

Once headlines began appearing about a new, mysterious “gay cancer,” panic, horror, fear and pain set in. In the first years of explosive outbreaks, its cause, nature, and mode of transmission were not known, and no tests existed to identify who had it. The deaths mounted steadily through the early nineties, and even after 1996. My close friend’s brother hung on until 2002 before passing.

The government turned its back and thousands of gays stepped up in the midst of their own fears to become heroic caregivers to friends and strangers. The emotional toll for survivors was so acute, it undoubtedly exists to this day.

Important works written in that era described its impact, foremost being Larry Kramer’s play, “The Normal Heart” (1984) that portrayed with grit, terror and compassion the period after AIDS first manifested in that summer of 1981. Its revival on Broadway this year, and its Tony Awards accolades are heartening indicators that after 15 years since the end of that “Dark Age” era, with all the post-traumatic stress it caused, we may now be moving beyond it.

Other accounts written in the era include Andrew Holleran’s collection of 23 essays written during the mid-1980s, published together as “Ground Zero” in 1988 and re-published recently as “Chronicle of a Plague Revisited.” Paul Monette wrote “Borrowed Time, an AIDS Memoir” (1988). Randy Shilts wrote the epic tome, as a journalist chronicling the era for the San Francisco Chronicle, called “And the Band Played On” (1987). Tony Kushner wrote the magnificent, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angels in America” (first performed in 1990). Both Shilts’ and Kushner’s works later became important television films. Many victims wrote poetry in that time, too, a sampling assembled by Philip Clark and David Groff in the recent volume, “Persistent Voices: Poetry By Writers Lost to AIDS” (2009).

The acute pain and sorrow of that time were also captured in songs written about AIDS, including Elton John’s “The Last Song” (1992) and Bruce Sprinsteen’s haunting Academy Award-winning “Streets of Philadelphia” (1993) featured in the compassionate, first major U.S. film about AIDS, “Philadelphia.”

Called “The Horror” by Africans on whose continent it now is rages, AIDS, Holleran wrote, “quickly converted people in their twenties into old men who were blind, mad, wasting away, racked with fevers, chills, pneumonia, diarrhea, Kaposi’s sarcoma, dementia, and other diseases made possible by the total breakdown in the immune system.”

In addition to being terminal, AIDS forced “outing” to parents, relatives and employers, often resulting in anger and shunning, terrible feelings of personal guilt, grueling suffering and loneliness, dying virtually alone (many already alienated from their families for “coming out” before moving to the city), premature total decimation of bodies and faces once so beautiful and valued, incontinence and frightening dementia.

The many uncontrollable tears shed by audiences at Kramer’s play this summer, or by readers of other works of that era, are balm even now for breaking through the hardened emotional defenses erected in that horrid time. Clive Jones’ AIDS Quilt project, the AIDS rides in the 1990s, the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and more have also provided opportunities.

My mind goes to the so many I knew devastated by that era, and the countless faces I remember from the 1970s I admired but never knew. I think of young models in Mel Roberts photographs, of chorus line twinks I espy on 1970s TV variety show reruns, and by imagining that in hospital wards, young gay men abandoned by their parents as they withered away sung along while the biggest hit of the early ’80s, Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” played on the radio.

My dedication to the National AIDS Memorial Grove reads, “To all the beautiful gay angels, on earth and in heaven.”

To be continued.

 

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