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In 1983 we knew nothing conclusive about AIDS--except that it destroyed everything in its path. And as The Advocate reported then, many didn't want to know much else. Twenty-four years later, everything--and nothing--has changed.

Common sense would dictate that by 2007, AIDS would not be the scourge it continues to be. How it's transmitted--and, consequently, how not to contract it--has been widely known by the public since the early '90s at the latest. So why do thousands of gays become infected with HIV every year? Partly for the same reason they did in 1983: denial.

While AIDS was snowballing in the early '80s, the sexual freedom of the previous decade continued to rage, with bathhouses, back alleys, and sex clubs hopping. Queer promiscuity paralleled advances in gay liberation and pride. But with the rise of AIDS, suddenly gay and straight people alike were wagging their fingers at that hedonism. It was a bitter pill some refused to swallow. "Many urbane, educated New Yorkers objected to being told about any epidemic in their midst as an act of bad taste," wrote Nathan Fain in The Advocate's "Coping With a Crisis" cover story. Many gay men protested any suggestion that they should curb their encounters, feeling that their free will was being impeded by judgmental medical authorities.

And why should they have listened to authorities? They clearly knew as little as the public they were trying to save. In 1983 the desperation of Harold Jaffe of the Centers for Disease Control's AIDS Task Force was such that he admitted to Fain, "We don't know of any hot leads in research. Do you?" Yet for everything they didn't know--what the virus was, how it was caught, who could get it--what they did know bears repeating today: The virus cannot be underestimated.

Still, almost a quarter century after that hysterical, horrifying time, gay people continue to become infected. Science has now made the disease manageable for most--and increasingly invisible. While children of the '80s and early '90s knew AIDS as lesions and torturous death, a la Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, kids in 2007 hardly think of AIDS at all. They think of HIV, and thriving HIV-positive individuals like Magic Johnson and Greg Louganis. HIV is no longer perceived as an agonizing death sentence but as a controllable inconvenience. The disease has been stripped of its fearsomeness--even though it still kills people.

Denial and apathy aren't the disease's only friends. In crystal methamphetamine AIDS found a soul mate. As the last century drew to a close, science advanced, knowledge spread, but so did crystal. Moving from gay meccas to quiet corners of the rural heartland, the shockingly addictive drug took hold--encouraging "party-and-play" benders where condoms are verboten.

Protection is also in short supply at organized down-low parties, where denial is as pervasive as dangerous sex. Many down-low men are of color, facing double discrimination that shames them into exploring their desires in dark places with anonymous partners.

Sounds like 1983, right? Since that groundbreaking Advocate cover, we've gained knowledge but have found that it doesn't necessarily translate to power.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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