In 1982, I was working at a mom-and-pop public relations firm that received the three daily New York newspapers: the New York Times, New York Post and Daily News. Every so often, I would read an item, buried deep inside one of the paper’s news sections, announcing this strange new illness primarily affecting young gay men. Being a young gay man myself, I was naturally curious.
I had already heard anecdotal stories of what was termed “gay cancer” and GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). One of Gary’s brothers had severely swollen lymph glands that wouldn’t vanish; a college acquaintance, a brilliant dancer with a Broadway career surely ahead of him, had died suddenly of a mysterious illness; another friend of a friend was experiencing bouts of extreme paranoia, and would often begin to mumble incoherently, symptoms we would later recognize as signs of dementia.
Larry Kramer, the author of Faggots, that acerbic chastisement of the promiscuous mating habits of gay men on Fire Island, wrote what is now considered the first major call-to-arms to the gay community.
Kramer’s article appeared in the New York Native, the city’s gay newsweekly, in March, 1983. The title was “1,112 and Counting”, and it started with these sentences:
If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.
It continued, in almost 5,000 words, to lash out at Mayor Koch, The New York Times, the gay community, President Reagan, the National Institutes of Health, and the New York City hospital system. Towards the end of this incitement, Kramer writes:
I am sick of everyone in this community who tells me to stop creating a panic. How many of us have to die before you get scared off your ass and into action? Aren’t 195 dead New Yorkers enough?
My pulse raced as I read the article, and I could feel the entire New York City gay community holding its collective breath.
Before this, I had heard only gossip, rumors, horror stories, that seemed too outrageous to be believed. The disease felt distant, even though I knew friends of friends who were affected. After all, I was not one of those people. I wasn’t promiscuous, was I? I was just beginning to discover, and exult, in my sexuality. It wasn’t fair.
Rumor had it that a common factor among those getting ill was the use of poppers and having multiple partners at the Baths. I didn’t like “poppers,” the amyl nitrate that gay men were using to enhance the pleasure of sex, or a night of dancing at the Saint. I had been to the Baths only three times. I did not wear leather. I did not fit the category of men who were becoming ill. I was not that leather-wearing, popper-inhaling, baths-hopping man.
On April 18, 1983, the cover of Newsweek read:
EPIDEMIC: The Mysterious and deadly disease called AIDS may be the public health threat of the century. How did it start? Can it be stopped?
It was the first major news story of the epidemic. Cases to date:1,300. Mortality rate:37.8%. Accompanying the article, there was a picture of two men in full leather, on the streets of San Francisco, with beer cans in hand, defiantly challenging America.
I decided to get involved, and I became a volunteer “buddy” with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the organization co-founded by Kramer.
I can’t say that my motivations were entirely altruistic. There was something significant happening. I wanted to chronicle it. And I was going to learn everything I could so I wouldn’t die at age twenty-five.
Want to start from the beginning? Link to the first column: https://aumag.org/2020/05/25/last-dance/.