by Mark Segal -
Philadelphia Gay News
Watching Dallas Buyers Club, the new film about the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, on the big screen last week had me recalling those dark days when we as a community were literally fighting for our very lives, and had me appreciating the real heroes of the era. Those of you with delicate sensibilities might not want to read the following memories of those days.
The 'early days' of HIV/AIDS were approximately 1982-92. We were a community dying with little help from the government, or for the most part even the medical world, to save our lives. The government, whose first job is to protect its citizens, did not. Those in medicine, who swear to do no harm, often ignored or refused to treat those infected with the virus. Funeral homes often refused to accept the bodies. To all of them, those with AIDS weren't even considered citizens - they were deceased aliens. Not only those with AIDS but almost all Gay men were suspected of being 'carriers.' We were all treated like lepers. If you visited an AIDS patient in the hospital, you prepared for something out of a science-fiction novel. Warning signs and yellow and red tape were everywhere. You were asked to wear a hospital gown and face mask. Sometimes, hospitals emptied a complete floor for one patient. Even The New York Times didn't take the matter seriously until more than 100 lives were lost - because, after all, it was a 'Gay disease' and only Gays were dying.
I guess you can feel my resentment from what you've just read, but you also might note that I've very rarely touched on the subject before in this column. There's a reason for that. Like many, I'd like to hide those feelings and I try and let them go, but how can you when you remember looking at your community as literally something out of The Walking Dead? If you were a Gay man in those days, you felt that there was a great possibility that you would get the disease - and if you survived, you felt, or even still feel, guilty. To this day, I often walk down the street wondering why I don't see certain people anymore. I'm afraid to ask friends about people from that time, since I'll so often hear, 'Oh, he died.'
LIKE WAR - MAYBE WORSE
The trauma for all of us is akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. We were in a war, and it was for our lives. Like war, we watched as our friends died. It may even have been more traumatizing than war, because at least in war you have the support of your government and the civilian populace; we did not. In war, you might see a couple of your fellow soldiers die; many of us saw scores, hundreds, multiple battalions'-worth perishing. And if that weren't enough, if, by chance, you saw a bruise one day on your body, you'd begin to wonder, Do I have it? And if I do, why even get diagnosed, since nothing could be done? And in the background were the preachers who yelled from the pulpit, 'AIDS is God's wrath on homosexuals!'
When the death toll finally became too high, when we saw our friends commit suicide rather than go through a horrible, stigmatizing death, this community learned how to react, organize, and fight back. Groups such as ACT UP and those who preceded them are the real heroes - not a heterosexual cowboy out for profit. Personally, for me, those who publicly came out and put a face on the disease, they are the heroes. Those real-life doctors who put their practices on the line, they are the heroes. Even those few elected officials who found dollars in their tight budgets to house, feed, and care for those who were tossed off by society, they are the heroes. And yes, buyers' clubs were heroes. But not an opportunistic cowboy.
Mark Segal, PGN publisher, is the nation's most-award-winning commentator in LGBT media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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