In This Pandemic, Personal Echoes of the AIDS Crisis

This article is part of our latest Pride special report, featuring L.G.B.T.Q. voices on the challenges and possibilities of these troubled times.

Alexander Chee is the author of “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” and “Queen of the Night.”

The first weekend of the coronavirus shutdown in March, my husband, Dustin, and I made calls to family and friends to discuss our plans. Most of them were already adjusting to the idea of a pandemic unlike any we had seen before, but it was already feeling like one I had seen before. “I’m used to not doing everything I want to save myself from a virus, and they are not,” Dustin said.

I wasn’t alone in feeling an immediate parallel. This virus is not that virus, some of my fellow AIDS activist veterans wrote in those first weeks, trying to make room for each virus to have its own identity and history. Absolutely, I agreed, even though I kept feeling the undertow.

This virus is not that virus. But this country is still that country.

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The understanding that we were sheltering in place because this was our best chance at surviving our health care system’s ability to respond to the coronavirus felt like a distinct crisis from the older one I knew. But after a trip to the grocery store, while separating the items that needed washing, I found the spray bottle of bleach solution the cashier used to wipe down the counter in my bags — in the chaos, she had included it. As I walked with it to the bathroom to wash it, I had a 30-year-old memory of a walk from my bedroom to my bathroom in my old apartment in San Francisco, to dispose of a condom, conjured by the fear that an unseen virus was on an object in my home.

Soon the parallels were more direct: a president confronting an epidemic with ideology and not science; Anthony Fauci on my television screen; conservatives scapegoating Asians the way they once did gay people — but also, a way they had scapegoated Asians historically. Sometimes they seemed out of a satirical novel: The people determined to hold religious services now were many of the same Christians who in the 1980s feared they might get AIDS from sharing a communion cup. And there was dystopian half-rhyme: Celebrities came out as having the virus to destigmatize it — but this signaled they had access to testing before the public did.

Credit…John Sotomayor/The New York Times

When I read about how one of the early obstacles to manufacturing tests for the coronavirus was that drug companies feared there was no money in it, I remembered the many Act Up demonstrations demanding drug companies expand their research and make new drugs accessible, as their executives had feared there was no money in producing AIDS drugs.

And so I asked myself: Were these parallels in the nature of the viruses, or just an old story about America that had never changed?

Two months into lockdown, while checking in with an old friend from Act Up San Francisco, he described his reaction to the rapidly rising number of deaths. “I’m acknowledging them, but I’m not feeling them, just like the old days,” he wrote. “That comes later.” I stared at the sentences, glowing in the dark, in recognition.

We had met in 1989, and I once told him getting old while H.I.V. positive was one of the most-punk rock things he ever did, though the list is long. “What they’re all experiencing in three months is what we lived through for years,” he added. “I’m still alive though,” he said; he’s been saying this for decades, a mutual benchmark of success for many of us.

When Dustin contracted what was likely Covid-19 six weeks later, my Act Up network provided information about the disease and his care. And when I felt our doctors were failing us, telling us only that “we didn’t meet the criteria for testing,” and acting as if we were trying to cheat our way into being tested, I thought of Larry Kramer, an Act Up founder, as I demanded from them, loudly, to be cared for.

When Mr. Kramer died three months into the shutdown, I mourned him by reading some of his work and found his historic 1983 essay, “1,112 and Counting.” Back then, that was an alarming number of people. It was also just slightly less than the number of new coronavirus infections in New York City alone the night before he died, May 26 — a decline. And it is just slightly less than the number of people killed by police last year in America, according to the research group Mapping Police Violence. The ones we are able to count.

This was also the night after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“Health care is a right” was an Act Up slogan before it was a Democratic Party platform plank. Many of my friends in the group went into public health to make the changes needed to save lives. I have written before about how AIDS activists who did this work don’t get enough credit for having tried, during those first days and all the days after, to tell Americans that our health care system was potentially as deadly as the epidemic it failed to control.

Despite an internally contentious history, Act Up became a model for how a movement sustained continued work and mobilization, work that sometimes took decades. Much of mainstream policy now around substance abuse, touch hunger and viral transmission comes from the work of these activists. These same activists are now offering their expertise, in online sessions and in writing, about strategies for harm reduction while meeting social needs during an epidemic. The practices of safer sex can inform us on everything from going to the grocery store to creating a pod — a group of people you trust enough to live with or see regularly — to going to work.

AIDS activists and L.G.B.T.Q. people in general are still treated as if AIDS happened to only us. The AIDS epidemic has spread around the globe and killed millions because of neglect and misinformation — and you, like me, have also lived through it. If you didn’t know this, it is because it was made invisible to you, perhaps even by you, if you ever believed AIDS didn’t or couldn’t affect you.

In 1995, after Act Up’s advocacy with drug companies and publicly funded research resulted in the release of the anti-viral drug cocktail that saved so many lives, the AIDS crisis was then declared “over” in the late 1990s by too many influential voices — even as it expanded around the world, affecting communities that often didn’t have access to these drugs.

Thirty-four years later, some of the anti-viral drugs used to treat AIDS and protect from H.I.V. are even now being tested on coronavirus patients, with limited success. There are finally enough people with AIDS for drug companies to make drugs for them. Is this now already true for coronavirus? It seems so. We have reached the part of the script where too many of our officials have decided the danger is past us, and the country moves on, to both greater harm and further invisibility for those harmed.

The first years of the AIDS crisis feel to me like just a dress rehearsal for this intentional lack of care. As the many Black Lives Matter demonstrations, rightly being called a national uprising, spread to nearly every part of the country and communities around the world, I am reminded, of course, of how Act Up came to be. Many other countries have mobilized against the disease the way American government has mobilized to shut down the protests. I recognize police tactics I remember from the first times they were used against me, even as I see new ones. But the clearest echoes of 1987 visible are in the systemic corruption targeted by Black Lives Matter, the immunity from accountability that white supremacy needs to operate.

Coronavirus infections had already exploded in states that have reopened, even before these protests that many worry are also spreading the virus. But protesters are risking their lives because staying home the way things are now effectively means giving up on those lives. Black Lives Matter and its partners are responding to the police killings and the pandemic, which affected communities of color, especially black communities, more than others — as the aid to health care workers and businesses went predominantly to affluent white communities. This violence against black lives isn’t an epidemic as much as it is a 400-year-old history. We are fighting a virus that demands we change our behavior to survive, even as our country’s racist history, also, demands that of us.

This is the 50th anniversary of the first Pride march; the month started with marches already in progress, a good way to honor the Stonewall uprising that likewise protested excessive police violence. June 14 saw crowds marching in several cities to insist that black trans lives matter. All of the activists I know are genuinely surprised at the diverse, organized crowds at the protests and the seismic changes that have happened without the elections we were told to wait for.

I want to believe real change is coming. I am also someone who is nervous when he feels that way, having seen, so often, the defeats handed out when victory is declared too soon — traditionally the result when solidarity with black leaders is abandoned. The AIDS crisis is not over, the coronavirus pandemic is not over, and the violence against black communities is not over. This country is still that country. All the same, I am prepared to be surprised — for this country, at last, to never be that country again.


Tags: health

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