In the early 1980s I was living in Brooklyn Heights in New York City. My girlfriend worked at a hospital in Brooklyn and came home talking about gay men coming in with Kaposi sarcoma. The doctors were mystified. It was the beginning of the AIDS crisis, but nobody knew that yet.
First known as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), the AIDS epidemic would rip through the LGBTQ community, leaving its victims to die stigmatized by a homophobic society, often isolated and afraid. Lesbians were mostly spared but we watched our gay male friends die.
In the late 1970s, I lived in Boston and many of my friends were gay men. They took me to Buddies, Chaps, Sporters and, with last call in Boston at 2 a.m., to an occasional after-hours bar. After moving to New York City in 1981 the onslaught of AIDS soon took hold. I never wanted to go back to Boston, since most of my friends were dead.
With the success of the film Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury is once again everywhere. Never a Queen fan, I was nonetheless upset when he died of AIDS-related complications in November 1991. I always enjoyed watching a bisexual man cheered by that enormous crowd at Live-Aid in 1985. Now we know he pulled off that legendary performance while HIV-positive.
Recently I read Somebody To Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne. As a musician I find music biographies very enlightening and don’t have to be a fan of the subject to enjoy them. I had put off reading about Freddie far too long. Although not a book about AIDS, Richards and Langthorne have woven an accounting of the AIDS crisis into Mercury’s story. It is difficult to truly tell his story without doing so. I found myself back in the dark side of that fast-paced, often bright decade where so much seemed possible -- except for stopping the virus.
Ronald Reagan’s complacency about AIDS was not his finest moment by any account. His silence condoned the homophobic stigma of the disease; he slowed research and cost lives. Reagan watched his friend, Rock Hudson, die due to AIDS in 1985 and did not publicly break his silence. As shameful as Reagan’s handling of AIDS was, imagine if the crisis had occurred under Donald Trump's watch.
We can be sure, given Trump’s tenure in the White House so far, his reaction to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s would have made Reagan’s silence downright compassionate. After two years of gutting resources and disrespecting HIV-positive people, Trump just announced a big plan to battle the disease, likely hoping for some goodwill from an electorate tired of his lies, corruption, and chaos.
But imagine how Trump would have dealt with a deadly, untreatable disease afflicting mostly gay and bi men, trans women, intravenous drug users, and people from a part of the world he allegedly refers to as "shitholes." The crisis would have been played to stoke fear in Trump’s homophobic, racist minority base to garner votes and campaign contributions. In speech after speech and tweet after tweet, we can be sure the LGBTQ community would be denounced and vilified as carriers of disease primed to infect his base of righteous white, straight Americans (sounds like a perfect job for Mike Pence). Instead of a declaring a fake national emergency to build a wall on our southern border to keep out brown people, Trump would have used the AIDS crisis for his base-pleasing national emergency and in no way would it have helped those suffering.
We don't know what the future holds, but we do know who is in the White House is crucial to how future crises are handled. I often think about those Sunday afternoon tea dances at Buddies, when none of us had ever heard of Kaposi sarcoma. We can't let another cynical, uncaring president ignore or weaponize another real emergency like that, whether it be a disease, climate change, hate crimes, or gun violence. Now is the time to pay attention to the conclusion of the Mueller investigation, proper Congressional oversight, and proceedings involving the Trump Organization in federal court in the Southern District of New York. Pay attention to the presidential candidates entering the 2020 race and remember Trump must not serve a second term. It really could be a matter of life and death.
SUSAN SURFTONE is a musician who previously served as an FBI agent. Her latest EP is Making Waves Again.