By Mark Segal
Watching “The Dallas Buyers Club” on the big screen this past week, the new film about the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, had me recalling those dark days when we as a community were literally fighting for our very lives, and appreciating the real heroes of the era. For those with delicate sensibilities, you might not want to read my following memories of those early days.
The early days were approximately 1982-92. We were a community dying with little help of saving our lives from our government, or even, for the most part, the medical world. The government, whose first job is to protect its citizens, did not. Those in medicine, who swear to do no harm, often ignored or refused to treat. Funeral homes often refused to accept the bodies. To all of them, those with AIDS weren’t even considered citizens; they were treated as deceased aliens. Not only those with AIDS, but almost all gay men, were suspected of being “carriers.” We were all treated like lepers. If you visited an AIDS patient in the hospital, you prepared for something out of a science-fiction novel. The yellow and red tape was everywhere, warning signs. You were asked to wear hospital gowns and face masks. Sometimes, hospitals emptied a complete floor for one patient. Even the New York Times wouldn’t take it seriously until after 100 lives in New York were lost, because, after all, it was a “gay disease” and only gays were dying.
I guess you can feel my resentment from what you’ve just read, but you also might note that I’ve very rarely touched on the subject before in this column. There’s a reason for that. Like many, I’d like to hide those feelings and try and let them go, but how can you, when you remember looking at your community as literally something out of “The Walking Dead”? If you were a gay man in those days, you felt that there was a great possibility that you would get the disease, and if you survived, you felt, or even still feel, guilty. To this day, I often walk down the street wondering why I don’t see certain people anymore. I’m still afraid to ask friends about people from that time, since I’ll often hear that line, “Oh, they died.”
The trauma for all of us is akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. We were in a war, and it was for our lives. Like war, we watched as our friends died. It may have been more traumatizing than war because at least in war you have the support of your government and populace; we did not. In war, you might see a couple of your fellow troops die; many of us saw scores, hundreds, multiple battalions-worth perishing. And if all that were not enough, if, by chance, you saw a bruise one day on your body, you’d begin to wonder, Do I have it? And if I do, why even get diagnosed, since there was nothing that could be done? And in the background were the preachers who yelled from the pulpit, “AIDS is God’s wrath on gays.”
When the deaths, without any assistance from the government or medicine, became too high, when we saw our friends commit suicide rather than go through a horrible death, and one where they were stigmatized, this community, out to survive, learned how to react, fight back and organize. Those such as ACT UP and those who preceded them are the real heroes, not the heterosexual cowboy out for profit. Personally, for me, those who publicly came out and put a face on the disease, they are the heroes. Those real-life doctors who put their practices on the line, they are the heroes. Even those few political elected leaders who found dollars in their tight budgets to house, feed and care for those who were tossed off by society, they are the heroes. And yes, buyers’ clubs were heroes, but not a cowboy out for profit.