December 1, 2004: The New York Times’ page one stories ranged from the demolition of Falluja to the court-recommended annual $5.6 billion increase for New York City’s public schools.
Caroline Kennedy’s planned garage sale made the front page, with full-color photos of a luggage set left to her by her mother.
Editorials commented on the inhumane treatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners, nuclear development in Iran, and Tom Ridge’s departure from public service, saluting him as “the best secretary of homeland security this country has ever known.”
Page one of the Metro Section examined a proposed expansion for the New Jersey Turnpike. Another story noted that Suffolk County prosecutors “presented a stronger case” than the defense in the Daniel Pelosi murder trial.
There wasn’t a single story about AIDS on World AIDS Day.
Well, that’s not quite true. Page B-2’s Public Lives column featured the headline “Helping Life into the World, Then Trying to Save It.” In the third paragraph, we learn that Dr. Allan Rosenfield, dean at Columbia University’s Mailman School for Public Health, is “increasingly involved in one of the toughest battles on earth, the battle against the global AIDS pandemic.”
Deeper in the story we read that Rosenfield has four decades of experience as a proponent of women’s health issues, leading up to his work with women and AIDS in Africa and Asia.
So, the only story related to World AIDS Day in the New York Times was presented as a personality profile that gave little justice to Rosenfield’s extensive efforts on the epidemiology of HIV.
Through the years, the compilation of New York City statistics on the epidemic has become numbing. One study of young gay and bisexual men of color in a select group of major cities indicates that one third of them is HIV-positive. AIDS is the number one cause of death for black and Hispanic women of child-bearing age. HIV-positive African-American women outnumber positive white women by a ratio of ten to one. HIV rates among gay men under 30 have increased annually for several years, partly because of crystal meth and other party drugs, and partly because some young men think the disease is treatable. Re-infection among positive people appears to be producing untreatable strains of the virus.
October 15 marked the 20th anniversary of my first lover’s death. Michael Collins was a Methodist minister, and when we met in 1978, the gay world was a big, bright welcoming party where everyone was beautiful. He was from Oregon and moved here in 1977. I was from Missouri, and came here because I fell in love with Michael. By the time we separated in the fall of 1982, eight or nine friends of ours had died. Then, the following spring, Michael told me he had AIDS. I became a part of the family who took care of Michael and his subsequent lover, Doug.
There weren’t many treatment options back then. AZT was years away, and the protease inhibitors came nearly 12 years after Michael’s death. There was care from concerned nurses and doctors. However, many hospitals isolated us and made visitors wear masks and gloves.
Outside of the hospitals, we encountered a sometimes hostile, often indifferent world. Landlords were evicting us. Dentists wouldn’t fill our teeth. More money was spent on military bands in 1982 than on AIDS research and treatment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention kept death statistics in four distinct categories—gays, intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs and Haitians. The CDC wasn’t concerned or curious about bisexuals or gays who used intravenous drugs.
Then came the homophobia and the lies. I think it was 1983 when Geraldo Rivera “exposed” the truth about AIDS and Haitians—San Francisco and New York gay men, on vacation, spread it through sex with young boys. Pres. Ronald Reagan couldn’t murmur the “A” word until 1987. And throughout the 1980s, The New York Times’ obituaries obfuscated any reference to AIDS by attributing cause of death to Latin-named diseases like pneumocystis carnii pneumonia and cytomegalo-virus, if not simply cancer.
Back then, New York Times editors expunged the L and G words, lest an editor be reprimanded by an Ochs or a Sulzberger.
In the 21st Century, B and T have joined the L and G words, and no one cowers from saying AIDS. But has AIDS awareness simply gone out of vogue?
On World AIDS Day, I happened to hear a radio interview with Arthur Webb of the Village Center for Care discussing the annual commemoration in a radio interview. He noted that HIV infection is increasing among people over 50. He talked about the increasing incidence of HIV infections among Americans and New Yorkers over 50.
“Shocking,” I thought, “that people over 50 would do such things!”
And then I remembered that in 2005 I too will be 50. Could I, who somehow stayed negative in the 80s and walked a careful line throughout the years, become positive?
In a word, yes.
It happened to three friends of mine in the past ten years, long after we all learned everything we needed to know about safer sex. One had been drinking heavily. Another thought he couldn’t get it if he “were on top” during sex. And the third explained that it was “a Cole Porter ‘just one of those things’ encounter, and we weren’t thinking too clearly.”
I met a 23-year-old man who was recently diagnosed as HIV-positive. He was born in 1981, the same year that Charles died. I can’t remember Charles’ last name, but he came from Texas with his sister, and they lived in a “La Boheme”-like walk-up apartment with French doors for windows looking out onto Bleecker Street. They were actors who survived by catering and performing “singing telegrams.”
That summer, Charles developed a rare cancer on the back of his throat. He died in November. Such diseases were lumped together under the rubric “GRID,” for Gay Related Immunodeficiency. All of that was renamed AIDS in 1982, and by then it became evident that Charles died of Kaposi’s sarcoma.
The irony was that Charles had only made love to two or three men in his life. He defied the gay norms of the time because he refused to have sex on the first, second or third dates. Charles simply said he was saving himself for “that special guy.”
After Charles, Michael, Doug and hundreds more died in the early 80s, HIV/AIDS became a struggle, a cause and a target of frantic hope for a cure. We’ve held countless marches, auctions, concerts and celebrity events. We established World AIDS Day to draw everyone’s attention to the global and local impact of this disease.
Yet the message somehow still doesn’t make it. It didn’t reach my 23 year old acquaintance, or my three friends, or the hundreds if not thousands who will become positive in New York City this year.
And amidst all this, The New York Times forgot to tell us what day it was.
Tim Gay is the outgoing Democratic district leader in the 75th Assembly District and chairman of the New York County Democratic Committee.