‘All Your Friends Died’: Reliving the Horrors of the AIDS Crisis

OAfter two years in a global pandemic that has killed more than 6 million people, infected more than 500 million others and irreversibly changed the way we all live, work and interact, as some mourn and some continue to adapt, for others an investigation is underway.

How did we get here? What mistakes have been made? And what can we learn? For those who survived another global health crisis decades earlier, one with a much higher death rate but drastically less visibility, many of these questions remain. In the summer of 1981, a quietly alarming new illness began to afflict gay men, initially reported in the local gay media but soon covered in the New York Times with the still rather unforgettably chilling headline “Rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals† In that year, 234 people died in the US. In 1982, the CDC first used the term AIDS. By the end of the decade, more than 100,000 Americans had died.

“I think fear was the overwhelming feeling,” journalist Leon Neyfakkh told The Guardian, after interviewing many who survived the era for the most recent season of his Fiasco podcast. “Just know that you might have it, but you’re not sure and you might not know it for months or years, because for a long time there was no way to check it while all your friends were dying.”

While there are many unresolved issues with the way the US and many other countries have mishandled and continue to mistreat Covid-19, there was at least some sense that it used to be being treated. But under the Ronald Reagan administration, at a time when the majority of US states still enforced sodomy laws, treating a condition that primarily affected gay men, and ultimately drug users who shared needles, was not seen as a priority. “Anytime you talk about sex or drugs, it’s a moral issue, not a public health issue,” Joycelyn Elders, Bill Clinton’s former surgeon general, told the podcast.

Years later, Elders was one of many who still sounded the alarm (before… abruptly and brutally fired after pushing for more open and honest forms of sex education), but then it was left to gay men, and then their devoted allies, to militarize, looking for solutions that no one else had. They are the heroes of the fifth season of Audible’s Fiasco, a dense and often devastating podcast docuseries devoted to clarifying the day-to-day reality of a particular historical event. Past seasons have explored the 2000 Bush-Gore election and the struggle to desegregate schools in Boston.

Protesters line the streets outside the New York Stock Exchange in 1989 in a demonstration against the high cost of the AIDS treatment drug AZT.
Protesters line the streets outside the New York Stock Exchange in 1989 in a demonstration against the high cost of the AIDS treatment drug AZT. Photo: Tim Clary/AP

“I don’t think we’ve ever made a season of our show with a message with a capital M,” Neyfakh said of Zoom, keen not to position the show as a form of public service. “We’re always much more inclined to air the complexities of these issues and have people present their point of view and explain where they’re coming from and let listeners take what they want. We always try to find the people who populated these stories and we want to detach them from the abstractions in which they generally come to us.”

In the beginning, and for far too long after that, a diagnosis was essentially a death sentence (it wasn’t until 1985 for an official test to be available), and with little to no awareness of what it was and the details of how it had been broadcast, gay men were forced into action, while their friends around them disappeared. Neyfakh called it “a dichotomy of fear and grief, but accompanied by an unstoppable urge to survive and find a way out” and it is something we see in both those with whom he speaks and those who are no longer here with us but whose stories are shared. There was Michael Callen, a New York singer turned activist who teamed up with self-proclaimed “SM-huttler” Richard Berkowitz to spread awareness among the dangerously uninformed gay community. Callen was diagnosed in 1982 at the age of 27, but along with Berkowitz and with the direct help of the doctor-turned HIV/AIDS researcher Joseph Sonnabend, he spent the next decade, before his death at the age of 38, worked on massive important and time unprecedented, workpieces such as the basic manual How to have sex during an epidemic

But what Fiasco details is that trying to control gay men’s sex lives was an uphill battle and for understandable, often oversimplified or harshly judged reasons. “One thing I didn’t appreciate until we started working on this was the fact that this period followed an explosion in gay life,” Neyfakh said. “In New York and San Francisco and LA, gay liberation was in full swing when this started and there was a lot of resistance when Berkowitz and Callen started advocating safe sex because it felt like turning back the clock, it wasn’t just about when they were told That you had to stop your party felt like to many that people were being told to conform to mainstream society in a way that was anathema to gay liberation.”

One of the most interesting and difficult episodes is about the war over bathhouses in San Francisco. Once seen as a liberating space where gay men could express their sexual freedom, the rise of HIV quickly turned them into a potentially dangerous source of infection. While some, including many gay men, wanted them closed, others insisted they remain open, viewing their closure as a dangerous step towards re-criminalizing sodomy across the country. For Neyfakh, “this freedom versus public health debate clearly resonated” in the era of Covid and it also shone light on the complicated rifts that are opening within the gay community. “There was just a total vacuum of knowledge and so it’s not surprising that people had what later turned out to be erroneous theories,” he said.

For many, the broad strokes of what the Reagan administration did and especially didn’t do may not be particularly revealing, but the literally deadly apathy of the first couple and those who worked alongside them remains shocking. Gruesome, recently unearthed audio footage is played from the very first time a reporter asked Reagan’s press secretary about the virus and is given a quip before bursting into laughter. It took four years and the death of actor Rock Hudson to wake them up, and in late 1985, Reagan finally said AIDS for the first time. televangelist Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, which uses words like “punishment” and “sin” to further isolate an already isolated community.

A die-in protest in San Francisco.
A die-in protest in San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of Oakland Museum of California

“I think it wasn’t until I started working on the series that I realized how perfectly AIDS fits into the pre-existing prejudice people had against gays and lesbians,” Neyfakh said. “It just caused every specific hateful prejudice people had about these people being seen as separated from the mainstream world.”

What may be more revealing to some is an episode addressing the so-called “hemophilia holocaust,” in which the blood industry’s failure to take action resulted in 10,000 hemophiliacs being infected via transfusions, more than half of their total population. in the U.S. “I think what shocked me maybe even more than just the fact of the numbers was how powerful the slowness was in the blood industry,” Neyfakh said. “Not changing the practices and refusing to accept that their product, whether it was blood donated or plasma paid for, was suddenly essentially lethal and there were people trying to warn them and people trying to make suggestions on how the product could be made safer. It felt like a story about more than just haemophilia or blood donation, it felt like a story about how institutions and industries are closing ranks and resilient to change, even in an emergency.”

While great strides have been made, especially with regard to the life-saving “triple cocktail” of antiretroviral drugs (which took until 1996 to be created), the most striking thing about the eight-episode season is how little has changed. In 2020, approximately 680,000 people worldwide died from AIDS-related diseases. There is still no vaccine against HIV. Needle exchange programs remain effective but vilified. Sexual health and sex education are both still treated as moral issues. Color communities are still at much greater risk. Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is on the rise. If something like HIV struck again, would it be any different?

“I think there is little reason to be optimistic,” Neyfakh said. “How easy it is for people, when it’s not right in front of them, to just not think about it. I think that combined with the homophobia it caused explains a lot of why there was so little public urgency around this disease and I think that would happen now, if you can keep something out of sight it’s very easy to get there. nothing to do with it.”

#Friends #Died #Reliving #Horrors #AIDS #Crisis

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *