1986: The Virus That Dared Not Speak Its Name
Part XII of an Ongoing Chronicle of the First Fifteen Years of the AIDS Pandemic
by Bruce Ward
Though my public affect was one of stolid nonchalance, I began a private descent into shame, fueled by stigma and rejection—from society, our government, potential paramours, and even from medical professionals.
I was experiencing a throbbing toothache, and I went to the dental clinic that was available to me through the City Health Department. On the form I was given to fill out in the waiting area, I dutifully checked off that I was HIV-positive, and that I had been exposed to the hepatitis C antibody (as were 80% of NYC gay men at the time), meaning that I was not a “carrier” of the hep C virus and was not infectious.
After waiting an hour in the dental chair, both a female hygienist and a male dentist entered the room wearing rubber gloves, surgical masks, and fearful expressions.
They took turns giving my teeth a perfunctory prod with a piece of equipment.
“It looks like you’ll need a root canal,” the dentist informed me.
“We’ll be right back,” intoned the hygienist, as they again both rushed out the door, closing it shut behind them.
I waited in the chair for another hour.
When the hygienist returned by herself, still suited up in her HAZMAT uniform, she informed me that I did, indeed, need a root canal but that they would not be able to perform it at their clinic.
“We would need to autoclave the equipment for twenty-four hours prior to the procedure in order to sterilize it,” she stated mechanically.
“We’d also have to scrub down the entire office, including the walls. And we are not equipped to do that.”
But what about my root canal and my impacted tooth that was hurting like hell?
“You will have to find another dentist,” she informed me.
After spending three hours in the office, two of them waiting with a bib tied around my neck, I was hardly in the mood to argue. Besides, I was beginning to take the mantle of “outcast” in stride. I skulked out of the office, feeling like a leper of Molokai.
After a couple of days had passed and I had consulted with Stephen, the Hotline supervisor, I realized that my instincts were right: These kind of precautions were unnecessary and showed an obtuse misunderstanding of medical knowledge.
Stephen urged me to file a complaint with the state’s Human Rights Commission and I did. I was later told by the lawyer that three other people had also filed similar complaints against the same dental clinic.
Word of the complaints was brought to the press and I was contacted on the phone by Art McFarland, a reporter at WABC, one of the local news affiliates.
I agreed to an interview and I met Mr. McFarland and a cameraman in his office.
At this point in the epidemic, there was a great distinction in the media in regards to being HIV-positive, having AIDS-Related Complex (ARC), and being diagnosed with AIDS. AIDS was a dirty word and it carried with it the connotations of death and nasty sex and extreme infectiousness. Being “positive” seemed more innocuous, like you were cheerily optimistic, not so infectious. Maybe you weren’t going to die immediately. Maybe you got the virus another way, a “nicer” way, say, through a blood transfusion.
Because I had not yet had an opportunistic infection, I was not labeled in the dreaded AIDS category. This helped fuel my hopes that I wasn’t really “that sick.” I also naively believed that everyone else understood the distinction among the terms. Imagine my surprise when I watched the news report that night and saw the graphic “AIDS victim” scrawled on the screen beneath my face.
I was furious and mortified. At least I’m sure no one will see this, I told myself. My face was only on screen for about ten seconds.
The phone rang.
It was my mother. A relative from New Jersey, who I barely knew, had called her, having seen the news report.
I hadn’t had the official discussion with my parents about my viral status being confirmed. But they were with me, after all, in Hawaii when I got sick, and they knew about the type of work I was doing and the very real possibility of my having the virus. I assured them that I did not have AIDS, and this seemed to comfort them. I was “merely” HIV-positive. They would have to somehow explain this to my New Jersey cousin, who had probably already fired off a number of phone calls.
But the cat was out of the bag, at least to some members of my immediate family. Cousin Bruce was a gay man with a gay disease.
I did indeed find a dentist, a gay one, who understood the necessary precautions, and I had my root canal.
The four of us involved in the complaint against the dental clinic filed a joint lawsuit and we won. There was little monetary compensation for any of us, personally. We had only wanted to send a strong message regarding unnecessary and discriminatory dental practices. The clinic was fined, with the money going to AIDS organizations. The most important outcome, however, was that the directors of the clinic were told to implement an AIDS education program.
I was proud to have had my hand in just a little part of the city’s anti-discriminatory policy, but I had also learned my first lesson in the consequences of revealing my status. A new scalpel had been introduced to incise my self-worth. But the shedding of shame that had begun with acceptance of my sexuality was now replaced by a deeper, more sinisterly invasive shame. I had entered a new era of secrecy and self-loathing. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, I had the virus that dared not speak its name.