I was watching The Normal Heart the other night and I had a strange realization. I haven’t known about homosexuality without AIDS in the world. It’s weird to think about, where homosexuality was before AIDS. Watching the movie, we get a glimpse of what it was like and I’ve read a fair amount of history to know how marginalized the gay community was before AIDS. But I haven’t known a gay person without AIDS present, without that specter looming.
Make no mistake, especially in the mid to late 1980s, AIDS was a specter. The more we learned, the scarier it got. No one was exactly sure how it was transmitted. Sure, sex and soon after sharing needles, but the questions remained. How much blood had to pass? What about saliva? Mucus? The phrase “safe sex” was ubiquitous on my college campus.
But for the horror that was AIDS in the 1980s it made homosexuality, especially male homosexuality, visible. The homophobia that resulted had less to do with the disease and more to do with the greater visibility of gay men. The AIDS crisis not only made it necessary for people to come out if they wanted something to be done about the epidemic, but it made people, myself included, examine how I viewed and treated gay people.
I’d love to tell you that I was open, loving and accepting. I never thought as some did, and still do I’m sure, that AIDS was some kind of divine punishment. I may have had issues with belief in God, but I’ve never believed in a cruel one. But I do recall thinking, “why do they need to be so in your face about it?” Thinking back, it would be funny if it wasn’t so ignorant and sadly, bigoted. As I went through high school and most of college, I didn’t even really know who they were. I didn’t meet a gay person until I was a senior in college and that was in the last quarter. That isn’t to say that there were’t homosexual people in my world. But many of those were’t out at the time and it isn’t my place to name names now.
An odd thing happened as the 1990s picked up steam. Gay people were becoming present, not just in far away places like New York and San Francisco, but in places like Ohio and Michigan. In the face of such a horrible disease, the need to come out or die in silence, gay men and women started coming out based more out of self identity and pride than out of a necessity to put public pressure on the government and health organizations. Despite the tragedy of AIDS, the toll that it took, the face of homosexuality changed. It was no longer something in the shadows, or better stated in the closet, but it was every day people, being themselves. It was coworkers and colleagues, former classmates and friends. Once homosexuality became real, not associated with AIDS, there was no going back. It is quite remarkable that in the last twenty years, how much more accepting and open our culture has become. If there wasn’t a push by activists like Larry Kramer, to not be silent I wonder where we would be now.
After watching the movie one last thing struck me: how many people still have and are getting AIDS. What makes me upset now is that AIDS is almost absent from American headlines. AIDS has become just another disease in the US, but not the death sentence (HIV more specifically) it was. Unfortunately, that isn’t reality. AIDS is still a scourge, still a specter. It is killing by the thousands still, especially in Africa. Being silent wasn’t an option in the 1980s, and it isn’t now. We still need to discuss AIDS and the people who have it. In Africa, it isn’t gay men who have the disease, but they are invisible to many of us, to me. The face of AIDS worldwide has changed and we can’t afford to ignore it.