During the official week of mourning following the death of Ronald Reagan, as I seethed with anger at the deification of the man who reigned carelessly over the first eight years of the AIDS crisis, I noticed a disturbing disconnect. Gay men my age and older understood my ferocious reaction to his demise—and were grateful for a chance to vent. Younger gay men were baffled or even stunned. Some wondered aloud about the connection between Reagan and AIDS. Others told me plainly not to speak ill of the dead.
These were no Republicans. Most were socially conscious types with plenty of politically correct credentials. Still, their direct knowledge of the 1980s had filtered in between classes in grade school. Could they be blamed for lacking a visceral response to the lies of omission that accompanied Reagan’s apotheosis?
I decided they could. I became angry with them, too. How could these men, who would have been dealt a much more stunning blow from Reagan’s callous back hand were it not for my band of ACT UP brothers, have become so completely detached from their own history in a mere 20 years? Weren’t these the same guys who were out snorting crystal and swapping HIV at barebacking parties until all hours?
More importantly, if they could only register what it had been like back before anonymous HIV tests and antiretrovirals, wouldn’t they all become poster boys for Trojans? Those of us who lived through those times had been frightened into a lifetime of safe-sex compliance, after all.
Ask not for whom the clue phone rings….
Clearly, there’s a lot more at stake here than my desire not to be rubbed out of our community’s history. According to a January, 2004, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene report, the neighborhood with the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in all of New York City is Chelsea: a whopping 223.6 per 100,000. No other neighborhood comes close. Last I checked, there was no age requirement for residency.
And a 2001 health department study (the most recent available) found that gay and bisexual men of all ages in New York City were infected with HIV at ten times the rate of everyone else—and at rate high enough to sustain an epidemic. But age, it turns out, is a very poor predictor of new HIV infection. The men with the highest incidence of seroconversion were 35–39. Just below them were men 45–49. Men 30–34 and 40–44 were next, scoring about equally. Then came the 20–24 year olds, and those 50 and older. Those 25–29 had the lowest rate of all, slightly underscoring teenagers.
The notion that those of us who lived through the Reagan years were thereby inoculated against unsafe sex is just one more urban myth. So, too, is the one about those problem children who, without first-hand knowledge of the disease, now run wild. The facts are much more complex.
HIV is still the biggest threat to gay men in America. That’s why our government is content to do so little about it. Pres. George W. Bush’s big plan for AIDS involves Africa, not Eighth Avenue, remember. In fact, the loudest noise Congress has made about AIDS in the past four years has involved de-funding prevention programs that do not hew to biblical ideas about sex and marriage. Thanks to the good Christians running your government, public school students are getting less safe-sex education than they were ten years ago. It’s as if Reagan got that third term after all.
But in our “Will and Grace” world, we flick past another stop-the-hate commercial on MTV and imagine that the guys who could be our sons, who read Dr. Seuss while Nancy had her charts read, who grew up on a steady diet of Ellen and k.d. and Melissa, have it so much easier than we did back in the day.
“Older LGBT people tend to equate visibility with everything being OK, but visibility is a decidedly mixed blessing,” notes Kevin Jennings, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, an advocacy group for gay kids. “You have more support, but you’re also a bigger target.
And although Robert Bank, the managing director of program services at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, recalls that “the emergence of protease inhibitors in 1996 was a big dividing line,” HIV continues to infect all of us, our personal experiences of the AIDS crisis notwithstanding.
“Life-affirming ads for protease inhibitors had the unintended consequence of making some people less concerned about their risk-taking sexual behavior,” Bank acknowledged.
A lot of those people are gay men over 40. In fact, gay men of all ages still account for at least one third of new HIV infections in this city—far out of proportion to our numbers.
The power of anger often clouds and even crowds out emotions that are less potent but no less essential—the fear of never knowing if you would be the next to get sick; the impotence of palliating without curing; the devastation of losing yet another close friend. All of those feelings came back to me with a vengeance as Reagan was flown into the sunset. We don’t like to talk about those emotions any more. But we must.
Reflecting on GMHC’s mission, Bank asks, “In a society that does not value the lives of gay men, how do we create the social norm of being healthy, whatever age you are?”
Acknowledging our pasts and sharing them with others—younger or older, those who lived through them, and those who did not—is one way to start.