As a tribute to the many who lived through the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and for those who left us far too soon, TheBody is sharing a dozen deeply personal essays written by entertainers, health care workers, lovers, artists, allies, writers, and activists from a time when many remained unaware of, or confused about, a publicly identified syndrome. From now through the beginning of July, we’ll share new essays here each week. We invite you to read, share, and reflect.
George Bellinger Jr., 65, original board member of Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD), New York City
I moved to D.C. from New York City as a young man and started working at the [gay-serving] Whitman-Walker Clinic in 1981 or 1982. This was before we had the name “AIDS.” A lot of people in D.C. thought that if you didn’t live in New York or California, you didn’t have to worry about this illness. Also, all the early pics of people affected were of white gay men, so there was a misconception that if you didn’t have sex with white gay men, you weren’t at risk.
At Whitman-Walker at that time, if people walked in and went “to the left,” that meant they were going to the clinic, probably for syphilis shots, and then you’d know who not to talk to at the bar that night. The first posters that went up warned us about being careful and suggested we start wearing condoms. Gay men were really hesitant about that, because in the late ’70s, being gay meant that you didn’t have to wear condoms. You weren’t going to get pregnant or get anybody pregnant.
Then everyone started talking about “guys with red blotches” on their skin [Kaposi sarcoma lesions]. One of the worst things we did was assess how they looked on white folks. As a Black man, unless you’re really light-skinned, those weren’t going to show up easily.
Then I came home to NYC for a holiday. I was a former dancer, and I saw that people in the dance community were starting to be affected. That made me go back to D.C. and be much more aware that it wasn’t just white men who were getting it. Also, at that time, people started going home for holidays and not coming back. If you were a 25-year-old Black gay man, you might not be out to your family or have the best relationship with them, but you knew that your momma was going to take care of you. You’d hear from somebody’s landlord that they moved out and never came back. So many people were embarrassed to tell anyone that they were sick. I knew a guy who wore three pairs of pants to make his legs look thicker from all the weight he lost, because if you’d been fat and you lost weight, people would think you had it and you wouldn’t get any more dates or be invited to parties.
A typical conversation would be, you’d get the number of somebody’s parents and you’d call and ask to speak to them. “Who’s this?” “This is George. I’m trying to call Joe. We were friends in D.C.” “Joe died four months ago.” You’d be like, “What?”
We didn’t know about transmission, about how you got it. Tops or bottoms or both? I’ve stayed HIV negative all these years, but for many years I thought I had to be positive. Too many guys I had sex with died. It was shocking that I stayed negative.
I ended up being a buddy for some of the sick guys in D.C. We’d go to their house, open their mail and read it to them, write checks for them, go shopping for them, and just give them company and watch TV with them because they were so isolated.
The first AIDS organization for Black people in D.C. was called Spectrum, where I worked. We’d do workshops in churches and universities. A lot of people thought it was a waste of time because they thought only gay white men and drug addicts were at risk.
The gay world in D.C. was very segregated. If you were a gay Black man who was very entrenched in the leather community or with a group of white gay men, you felt more comfortable going to Whitman-Walker. A lot of the information we got in the early days was based on white men, so we had to take their programs and put a Black slant on it. Like the lesions. We had to explain that they may not show up as much on Black skin, so you had to check for skin patches that were itchy or scaly. Or we’d have to say, “If you believe in Jesus Christ, he never talked about homosexuality, but he did say, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’” A lot of people then thought of people with AIDS as being in the “4H club”—homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. There was a terrible joke in the Black community: “How do I convince my mother I’m Haitian, because I can’t tell her I’m a homosexual or a heroin user.”
I moved back to New York to run a larger nonprofit working with substance users. For a while, I couldn’t go back to D.C.—too many places were closed, too many areas where I’d lost friends. I had dumb luck. I do have survivor’s guilt on occasion—I really do. There were some wonderful, beautiful men who just didn’t make it. I get nostalgic thinking about the love I had for them and the passionate sex we had.