Comparing COVID-19 and AIDS From a Gay Male Perspective
The not-so-hidden lessons of a pandemic.
Posted Mar 31, 2020
As we have become enveloped in the intense anxiety of the coronavirus, several younger, straight, and very goodhearted friends and colleagues tried to compare this pandemic to the beginning of the AIDS crisis, suggesting that what we are going through now is much worse.
I'm afraid I didn’t react well, probably because as a gay man of a certain age, I still carry the loss, suffering, and cruelty of that time. However, deep in my heart, I know that crises such as these offer their own redemptive lessons for us individually and collectively—and learning these lessons enables us to be better citizens of the world and, not incidentally, to assist the clients with whom we work.
In 1978, at the age of 19, I was swept into the Bacchanalian party of urban gay life. Gay men celebrated their post-Stonewall freedom in glittering discos, dark backrooms, and steamy bathhouses. After years of being bullied for my sexual orientation, I found myself dropped into a nonstop party that celebrated it.
Being a young gay man was rewarded with sensual pleasure, opening the doors to sexual expression that had long been locked. My gay elders at the time taught me that this decadent party and the anonymous sex that went with it was not only our birthright but also a political expression of our liberation.
In the mid-1980s, it all came crashing down. I first heard about AIDS in 1982. Like most gay men at that time, I didn’t believe it at first, certain that spreading what I thought was a rumor was a right-wing conspiracy raining down on our party.
Then things started to become deadly serious. We heard about and saw more and more gay men in New York City becoming sick. In those early days, the illness was called GRID (gay-related immune disease) and one of its symptoms was a strange cancer that revealed itself as purplish lesions on the skin.
Soon, we were all checking our bodies constantly for signs. We started to see friends and lovers die long, torturous deaths as their immune systems succumbed to bizarre illnesses that were rare, long eradicated, or previously only found in developing countries.
I was a volunteer on the AIDS unit of a local hospital at the time and I’ll never forget the once handsome professional model, who developed a horrible illness that resulted in large warts all over his face. It was a blessing in disguise that he lost his eyesight before he witnessed the deterioration of this looks. His partner refused all medical treatments for opportunistic infections, not wanting to prolong his own agony and followed him quickly in death. Those were the more positive stories.
But what added unnecessarily to the suffering was that, unlike the reaction to this current pandemic, our government initially did nothing and was excruciatingly slow to react. President Reagan would not even say the word AIDS. We were dying horrible deaths and were abandoned by our government.
And that’s not all. Many gay men were cut off from their families, who had rejected them for being gay or did so after their AIDS diagnoses forced their sons to come out. Too often, the only people who looked after these patients in their final months were their loving partners, yet such relationships were not legally recognized or protected and were often sneered at. Partners were prohibited from hospital rooms—and men who nursed their sick lovers until they died were kicked out of their homes once families of the deceased came to claim those homes and other jointly owned possessions.
The fear had weird and sometimes cruel consequences. As gay men, people were afraid to be near us, to hold us, to kiss us, to treat us or even feed us in hospitals. And being a gay man meant you lived in terror. Formerly body-conscious men tried to gain weight and develop paunches to show that they did not have the wasting syndrome that was a symptom of the illness.
Watching friends die, some of us succumbed to feelings of guilt and worthlessness about previously engaging in sex that society saw as dirty and dangerous. In a strange twist, several of my gay friends became born again Christians and/or got married in order to have a “straight” lifestyle.
Gay men of all ages contemplated death, reading the obituaries which, in humor tinged by the gallows, we called the gay sports pages. But in all seriousness, we were looking for our previous sex partners so we could know if we were next.
At 26, I asked myself questions common to those who were much later in life: “What did my life mean? If I were to die now, what had I accomplished?” With no tests or treatment available, I had no idea if I were infected, but I suddenly felt guilty for all of the wild oats I had sown. I looked at my cat and thought, “Yep Luigi, you might actually outlive me.”
And the pandemic dragged on for years with no relief in sight. Medications were introduced, like AZT and others that were not really effective. Tests became available but we were afraid to take them. Who wanted to know if they had an incurable illness at a time when insurers were kicking AIDS patients off their rolls and government leaders were calling for a quarantine?
Some gay men who did find out they were positive, quit work, relocated to warmer climes like Miami, Los Angeles, and Palm Springs, cashed in their retirement accounts and maxed out their credit cards, not expecting to live long enough to retire or pay bills and wanting to make their final months as pleasurable as possible.
History is littered with the stories of people who reacted badly during difficult times, but it also shines its light on those who exemplify humanity at its finest. Despite the well-known homophobia within the Catholic Church and the Pope’s refusal to approve of condoms for safer sex, I worked alongside priests and nuns who were amazing in their ability to comfort dying gay men without a shred of disapproval or judgment. Instead, they drew on their faith that death was not “the end” but a transition to something better. St. Vincent’s Hospital became the epicenter of kind, compassionate treatment in NYC.
Lesbians, who as a group had been historically marginalized and alienated by gay men, stepped up in ways to take care of us and became our beloved sisters. Mathilde Krim, Anthony Fauci, Elisabeth Taylor, Madonna, and many other celebrities raised funds for research and care. Larry Kramer, Tony Kushner, Keith Haring emerged as artists/activists of the era. Les Misérables was the hottest ticket on Broadway as gay men, under attack ourselves, adopted it as our crier de coeur. GMHC and In God’s Love We Deliver were nonprofit agencies in NYC that cared for AIDS patients and similar agencies propped up throughout the nation. ACT-UP revitalized 60s-style activism in the country and successfully pushed the government to fast track promising medications, laying the groundwork for policies that are still in existence today.
The early AIDS epidemic was different in many ways than what is happening now, and I don’t want to insult anyone who has suffered directly or indirectly through either of these pandemics by overstating their similarities. However, like for gay men during the early days of AIDS, the COVID-19 crisis feels like a surreal nightmare. There is a lot of angry finger-pointing, and searches for blame that looks suspiciously like the misplaced hostility and projected fear that, to many of us older gay men, rings familiar.
For AIDS, we blamed gay men, Black men, bathhouses, sex workers, drug addicts, bars with backrooms, bisexual men, monkeys, Africans, Haitians, and others. Now, we blame spring breakers, Italy, China, the Chinese, President Trump, Governor DeSantis, New Yorkers, snowbirds, and in my hometown in New Jersey and elsewhere, people who want to sit on a park bench or exercise outdoors.
Unlike COVID-19, having the HIV virus was an inescapable, slow, torturous death sentence with no hope of pardon. However, unlike AIDS, the medicine being prescribed thus far is painful and economically ruinous. During the initial AIDS crisis, we had movies, theater, work, some semblance of regular life to distract us, at least temporarily. We could find solace in each other’s physical company. There was no internet or screens or smartphones then, so it was a good thing we could meet and touch and hug. We developed safer sex techniques that avoided the transmission of the virus. However, with this current pandemic, we are holed up in our homes—some of us all alone.
It is pretty easy to see that the enormous and relatively speedy reaction to this current pandemic compared to the last is that it is not an oppressed, stigmatized minority who are the primary victims. However, I harbor no hard feelings. People are sick and we must do everything we can to help defeat this virus. But if the previous pandemic is any indication, we must be careful not to let our fear devolve into Draconian tactics and enraged finger-pointing to those who do not seem to abide by them. Like AIDS, we must balance public health priorities with individual responsibility.
Before effective medications that prevented the spread of HIV were found, it was thought to be morally wrong and, in some places, illegal to be HIV-positive and have sex with someone without a condom. Like the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, we are now hampered by a lack of testing—so many of us do not know if we have the virus or if we have been exposed to it. Until people have access to this information, social distancing is necessary.
Nevertheless, during the AIDS crisis, people did not stop having sex for long, and it is unlikely that people will be willing to stay locked in their homes indefinitely. Like during the beginning of the AIDS crisis, we must move as quickly as possible to develop testing and treatments. Once we know who has the COVID-19, who doesn’t, and who had it and recovered, it will be easier to resist the force of our darker angels.
Someday, this all will end and this virus will either become cured or manageable like HIV—hopefully in much less time. In 1995, I said goodbye to a client who was gay, had end-stage HIV, and in preparation for his death, wanted help tying up loose ends with his family of origin. On his way out of his last session, he casually mentioned that he was enrolling in a clinical trial for a new drug that seemed promising. I thought nothing of it for months, assuming he had died, until a tall, muscular, healthy man approached me in the gym. “Michael, don’t you recognize me?" he said. "It’s Ross." It was my previous client. Turns out the clinical trial was for the first class of new antiretrovirals that would transform HIV infection from a death sentence to a manageable disease. At long last, the clouds were parting and the sun was beginning to shine.
I pray with every cell in my body that we find a solution to the coronavirus crisis in a much shorter length of time. During the early AIDS epidemic, we found unity among gay men and those who loved us. During this crisis, we must overcome the bitter polarization that has infected our country before anyone ever knew of COVID-19.
However, in the meantime, get the facts but limit exposure to media. Attend to what you can control and recognize what you cannot; interrupt those horror movies in your head. Take good care of your health, get plenty of rest, sleep, exercise and eat healthy foods, as these things are known to bolster the immune system.
And look for opportunities to unify with others and be of service. Fear brings out the best and the worst in people and each of us will be remembered (and will remember) how we responded to this unprecedented historic event. Commit to making kindness and compassion your mission during these troubled times. The world needs these qualities now more than ever.
Shiltz, R. (1998). And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: Penguin Books.