During the AIDS epidemic I was deep into my 20-something life in New York City. I was an actor, I was in food service; gay men were everywhere. Until suddenly they were not. Little by little my friends and co-workers disappeared. I would walk down 7th Avenue South passing emaciated men, Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions prominently displayed upon their bodies. I felt like I was in the movie, The Night of the Living Dead. I had to look away. I felt sorry for them but I knew I wasn’t one of them. You see, at that point we uninformed folks were under the impression that gay, White, skinny men were the only ones succumbing to this strange new disease. Sure, we knew that AIDS could be contracted in all kinds of sexual relations, but that didn’t mean we practiced much discernment at the clubs and bars we frequented. I, for one, was reckless in these terms. It was simply the 80s: it was all about China Club, Michael Jackson, and AIDS.
In my daughter’s wonderful reading and writing group, a young man recently led our discussion based on several texts including Wayne Hoffman’s “Skipping the Life Fantastic: Coming of Age in the Sexual Devolution.” It’s a piece written in 1996 that looks at the ways that “queer lifeworlds” were changed, and really shackled, by the AIDS crisis. Gay men were essentially told to stop fantasizing, imagining, and exploring. It was time to get in lockstep with the new “anti-sex” movement. This was society’s way of policing what some considered a subversive lifestyle. It was for their own good, after all. And implicit, I think, was that it was pretty much their fault all this AIDS had happened in the first place. They had brought this disease upon themselves — and the world at large — by their impetuous behavior. These messages came not only from the “straight world” but from “the community” as well.
Fast forward, as they say, to today’s COVID epidemic. (Wow, I have already experienced two major epidemics in my lifetime; I am either old or the world is spinning out of control at an ever-increasing velocity). We learned early in this scourge — to no surprise for many of us — that African Americans were bearing the brunt of this disease. Following this “news” came exhortations indicating their culpability in the matter. From White and Black folk. Earlier this month a Michigan official said it was Black (not his word) people’s fault in Detroit that COVID had spread throughout his great state. And Black leaders are lecturing their people on egregious lifestyles.
African Americans have essentially been told to stop fantasizing, imagining, and exploring. They have been told by the media — both social and journalistic — to stop fantasizing about access to immediate health care; and to cease their imaginings of what social equity would look like right about now. And for God’s sake no more exploring the reasons behind the constant murder of Black people by law enforcement.
While the majority of White people skate through this horror holding on to job, family and home — albeit tenuously at times — African Americans (and Latinos and immigrants and the emotionally and physically disabled and the elderly…) bear the brunt of sickness and death. On top of that is heaped the blame. “We’re all in this together” comes the cry of the people. But really, not so much. If I were in my twenties today, I may well be as reckless as I was back in 1980s Manhattan, refusing to don a mask this time instead of overlooking the lack of a condom. This kind of behavior happens with privilege, a kind of lacy veil we wear (unlike a mask) that allows us to fantasize about our futures; imagine possibilities; and explore new horizons.
Those who have died of AIDS did nothing to deserve it. Those who are dying now at the alarming rate of close to 1000 humans a day don’t deserve it either. The blame belongs to our government, to corporations that put profit before public health and to anyone who looks away.