In 1981, a few activists sounded the alarm on a looming health catastrophe, but most people looked the other way — just as they did in 2020.
Something was killing us gay men in 1981 and no one knew what was causing it. That summer there was one alarming article about it in The New York Times on July 3 (“RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS”) based on a CDC report and two articles by out gay Dr. Larry Mass in the gay New York Native, including “CANCER IN THE GAY COMMUNITY.” While there were many gay groups in those days none of us stepped up to coordinate a community-wide response whether through a sense that health authorities would address it (ha!) as they did with Legionnaire’s Disease in 1976 or fear that a community that had just officially ditched the mental illness label in 1973 would now be linked with a deadly physical malady.
It took Larry Kramer, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for Women in Love), to bring us together. These cases hit his friends in the Fire Island fast lane hard. I only knew him as the author of the secret-spilling novel Faggots that had been condemned in gay movement circles.
Larry had also written an op-ed piece in the Times after the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978 praising gay political muscle in San Francisco and condemning his hometown: “We are not ready for our rights in New York. We have not earned them. We have not fought for them.” (“Fuck him,” I thought at the time as a spokesperson for the 50-group Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights that campaigned for our gay rights bill. We had the votes for it in Manhattan — a much larger place than San Francisco — in 1971 when the Gay Activists Alliance first conceived it. But Queens was then Archie Bunker territory. And Staten Island? Fuhgeddaboudit. Who is this guy who has never been to one of our meetings?)
But when Larry wanted to get things moving, he called everyone he knew — friend and foe — and many who he did not. So as one of the “gay leaders” he looked down on, I got invited to a packed gathering at his Washington Square apartment on August 11, 1981, to hear from the doctor quoted in the Times, Alvin Friedman-Kien. Larry wanted us to raise money for research since none was forthcoming from government.
If all you know about this was Larry’s dramatization of it in the HBO version of The Normal Heart you don’t know what happened. (It is not in his searing stage version.) On HBO, a doctor is explaining what she is seeing with gay patients and flippant gay men are shouting, “C’mon, honey. I have an orgy to get to.”
As Larry later wrote more about the devastation of AIDS, he was indeed vilified by some for being “anti-sex” for saying things like, “Just stop fucking!” But at that gathering 40 years ago we listened intently, respectfully, and full of dread as the soft-spoken Dr. Friedman-Kien described the devastation he was seeing in his practice and hearing from other physicians treating gay men. You could have heard a pin drop.
We did not know what was causing clusters of deadly pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and the disfiguring purple lesions of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, an otherwise slow-moving cancer mainly of older Mediterranean men. We knew the gay patients were immunosuppressed but not why. Recreational drug use? Multiple STIs from multiple partners? There was even speculation about a viral agent — a prospect too frightening to contemplate with its attendant threat of quarantine. But the conclusive identification of HIV as cause would not come until three years later. We needed research.
If memory serves, Larry passed the hat at that gathering. I recall going back to Dignity, the gay Catholic group I still belonged to, and reproducing Dr. Mass’s article for our 300 members. At the next board meeting we voted for a $1,000 donation to this research effort — a very large sum in those days in a community with very little tradition of philanthropy. Most gay people were afraid to write checks to gay causes lest it expose them in a deeply homophobic culture.
Larry himself reportedly went to Fire Island and stood on the dock with a tin can to collect money for the effort and netted a total of $60. He did organize his friends into forming the Gay Men’s Health Crisis — but that would not be incorporated until 1982 to provide services and education that the government was not. He wanted GMHC to be much more aggressive in its advocacy to the point that he got removed from the board — a turn of events well-portrayed in his play, The Normal Heart.
Why wasn’t our response quick and intense? Some of it was denial and fear. You can see that now in the early lack of response to the devastating COVID pandemic today. The reports out of Wuhan in the early winter of 2019-20 ought to have put a worldwide public health response into action immediately. But we dithered and wished it away instead. (I have a copy of the New Yorker magazine a month before the city was locked down and there is not one word about COVID.)
In 1981, this was hitting us when we were still “pre-teenage” as a movement. It had only been 12 years since the Stonewall Rebellion and while that had sparked an explosion in gay activism, we were still a relatively powerless, underfunded, and mostly volunteer movement. Most gay people were not out — they just hoped to be left alone. I wrote for the gay New York City News back then and it was months before the health crisis became a regular subject. We did step up the fight for gay rights because without civil rights how were we to get the system to respond to our health crisis?
The Times and other mainstream media ignored it. There was no national TV news feature on it until Joe Lovett’s piece on ABC’s 20/20 in 1983 — the same year Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz published “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic” based on the limited knowledge we had then and when GMHC was able to fill Madison Square Garden for a celebrity-studded circus benefit. Dr. Mass did keep writing about it for the Native but had an article (“The Most Important New Public Health Problem in the United States”) rejected by the Village Voice.
We did pass the city gay rights bill in 1986 and I went into AIDS education for youth at the Hetrick-Martin Institute. By 1987 though — impatient with the community’s response to “the plague” — Kramer gave the speech that led to the formation of ACT UP. Activism — fueled by desperate, dying people — got into high gear. But it would not be until 1995 that effective treatments were developed, by which time millions had died and millions more had been infected.
Politicians and human beings in general are loathe to admit they have a plague in their midst. That’s how they get out of control. The question about so many challenges we now face — from the pandemic to climate change — is when we are going to trade some short-term comfort for long-term survival. Those meetings need to be convened everywhere — from dinner tables to town halls to Congress.