As three decades of AIDS were marked in 2011, it was startling to see the degree to which Americans’ notoriously short memories had already begun to airbrush away the experience of their gay countrymen’s devastation and defiance in the plague years. Accustomed by now to thinking of the “face” of AIDS as that of an impoverished, dark-skinned African woman or baby, even the nation’s best-educated young people seem not to be aware of the plague’s impact here in their own homeland, beginning in the very decade when many of them were born.
“The de-gaying thing really worked,” said author and Dartmouth College professor Michael Bronski. “For better or worse, we did our jobs.” As evidence, Bronski described a class he taught about AIDS, called “Plagues and Politics.” He said his students couldn’t understand why he spoke of AIDS as a “gay disease.” Even a lesbian student told him, “I thought it was a little weird you were talking so much about ‘gay.’” She believed AIDS “was Africa and inner-city drug users, but mostly Africa.” Another student said, “I was wondering how you were going to bring in the U.S. part.”
Young gay men can be forgiven for not knowing the details of their community’s recent travails. They didn’t live through the nightmare, after all. At the start of the millennium, The New York Times noted that a generation of young gay men had by then already come of age without seeing their peers suffer and die from the horrific and disfiguring effects of HIV before HAART brought such dramatic change for many of those living with the virus.
Older gay men, many having lost lovers and friends and possibly living with HIV themselves, seem to prefer pleasanter subjects than the horrors we lived through. It’s understandable, to an extent. As with returning war vets, the grief and shock sustained by our wounded warriors keep so many of us silent.
December 15 2011 4:00 AM