The headline, tucked away on page 20 of the July 3, 1981, edition of The New York Times, has become iconic: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” It was essentially the first time that a mainstream newspaper acknowledged that “something was going around,” and it came on the heels of the first such mention in a scientific digest highlighting public health—the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—the month prior, and apparently the first report in a gay publication, the one-year-old New York Native, which on May 18 of that same year had published Larry Mass, M.D.’s article, “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded.” (Boy, did that turn out to be wrong.)
Together, the three stories have come to make up what we think of as the “official” start of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S.—the first time researchers, journalists, and activists put into print what appeared to be a syndrome (a cluster of symptoms) appearing in more and more gay men. In a year, people would be calling the syndrome “GRID” (gay-related immune deficiency), and in September 1982, the CDC called it AIDS—acquired immune deficiency syndrome—for the first time.
But even before spring/summer 1981—40 years ago right now—gay men, drug users, sex workers, and those who served them, such as doctors and social workers, were observing strange symptoms and illnesses such as chronically swollen lymph nodes, ferocious pneumonias, and the purple lesions of Kaposi sarcoma (that “rare cancer” the Times alluded to). Some had even died of what almost certainly was AIDS. What follows is an oral history of such memories prior to 1981—in some cases, the memories run through the early to mid–’80s, reflecting the fact that even after early published reports, many people remained unaware of, or confused about, a publicly identified syndrome. We hope that, together, these memories serve as a reminder that “official” history as published by society’s gatekeepers often doesn’t tell the whole story. They are also a poignant reminder of a moment in history marked by confusion and fear, before anyone clearly knew what was going on or how to stop it.
“Beautiful Men Who Just Didn’t Make It”
George Bellinger Jr., an original board member of Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD), remembers a time “before we had the name ‘AIDS.’” Working at Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C. in the early 1980s, he was among the first to see posters warning people to be careful and to wear condoms. Still, a lot of the public health messaging and prevention efforts, Bellinger said, were aimed specifically at white gay men—and largely ignored the Black gay community.
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The Nervousness That Came With Not Knowing
For Catherine, Frank, and Greg, the late 1970s through early 1980s was a time of first relationships and life with friends in New York City and Seattle, set against a backdrop of uneasiness amid rumors of “weird infections” spreading within the LGBTQ community. “From 1978 through 1981, my ‘group’ from Pennsylvania and our friends living in New York City would actually have dinner discussions about our sexual practices,” recalled Frank Pizzoli, a writer living with HIV. “We were regularly trying to assess our own level of risk at a time when no one knew from nothing about what was making gay men sick.”
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