A Decade of Loss
Ryan was not the first friend I lost to AIDS, and he was not the last. So many have been taken from me by this disease—sixty, seventy, eighty, I honestly don’t know how many. I’d rather not count. But I never want to forget them.
That’s why I have a chapel in my home in Windsor, in an old orangery on the property. It’s where I go to remember the people in my life who touched me, who made me the person I am today. When I go inside it’s like stepping back in time. I’m flooded with sadness and warmth.
Pictures adorn the walls. My grandmother. Princess Diana. Gianni Versace. Guy Babylon, the amazing keyboard player I lost to a heart attack in 2009. Then there’s another wall, full of plaques that list name after name after name. People who, in my memory, are frozen in time as young, vibrant, and full of life. None of them are here anymore. They all died of AIDS.
These were close friends, lovers, and people who worked for me. Many of them died in the 1980s, wiped out by a cruel and relentless plague. The first person I knew who died of AIDS was my manager’s assistant, Neil Carter. He was a lovely young man, and I was distraught when I learned he had the disease. Three weeks later, he was dead. His was the first plaque I placed in my chapel.
Today, AIDS in the West is increasingly thought of as just another chronic condition that can be controlled with medication. We see people like Magic Johnson living long and healthy lives, and we wouldn’t know they had such a terrible disease unless they told us. Thank heaven for that.
But when you got AIDS in the ’80s, you died—quickly and horribly.
The physical depredations of AIDS were bad enough. Then there was the terrible indignity that AIDS visited on the infected: the shame and the stigma.
Very early on, there were far too many in the media, religious institutions, governments, and the general public who sent an unmistakable message to people with AIDS: We do not care about you.
They were made to feel that they had somehow brought the disease upon themselves through their own sinfulness or lack of virtue.
For a while, to the extent the epidemic was considered at all, it was considered an affliction of “them” — the queers, the junkies, the immigrants, those people we don’t like to think about or talk about. But AIDS became a disease of “us” the moment rumors hit that it was in the general blood supply. First, AIDS began showing up in people with hemophilia, like Ryan. The real panic took off when patients started contracting the disease from blood transfusions during surgery, and although the numbers would ultimately turn out to be relatively small, the public began to feel as if anyone could get the disease. “Fear of AIDS Infects the Nation,” blared a U.S. News & World Report headline at the time.
By early 1983, scientists had not identified precisely what virus was causing AIDS, but they knew for certain that casual contact did not transmit it. Some public health organizations, including the CDC, did what they could to get the facts out, but they were overwhelmed by a tide of misinformation, often from people and organizations that should have known better. On May 6, 1983, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a news release with the headline “Evidence Suggests Household Contact May Transmit AIDS.”As late as 1985, a White House lawyer who is now the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts, sent a memo to President Reagan saying, “There is much to commend the view that we should assume AIDS can be transmitted through casual or routine contact."