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.
Greg, 61, diagnosed with HIV in 1991, San Diego
I grew up in Hawaii and was too afraid to go out to gay bars while I was in high school. I started going when I went to college in Seattle in 1977. My very first relationship was in 1977 or 1978 with a man named Dusty. He lived in Capitol Hill, which was the largest gay neighborhood in Seattle. Dusty lived in a studio apartment and had a friend living with him that had been quite ill. I just remember him being extremely thin and weak. He slept much of the day. Dusty said that none of the doctors had any idea what was wrong with him, but he was unable to take care of himself, and Dusty was kind enough to allow him to live there.
The apartment building was almost entirely gay men. It was a very sexually active time in the gay community, and many of the residents were sleeping with one another. I have often thought of that time—and I do suspect that was the first time I had any contact with somebody that likely had AIDS. If I had to guess, I would say he probably had Mycobacterium avium complex (MAC). It’s just a guess. All I do know is that he was quite ill and none of his doctors had any idea why. I lost touch with Dusty, but I believe his friend died later that year.
Frank Pizzoli, 70, writer, living with HIV, Pennsylvania
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. 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. Even though [the] CDC did not “officially” pronounce the existence of AIDS until June 1981, my gang noticed what we called the “weird infections.” Guys were coming down with opportunistic infections that were often associated with places where they’d never even traveled.
Over pasta, we’d nervously tease each other about our “gotta have met” sexual needs. If you were mostly “oral giving or receiving,” we’d shrug our shoulders and wonder if giving a load was better than taking one. Same with anal penetration. We’d deliriously run down each thing two or more guys could do in a bathhouse. Then we’d assess as best we could, with zero information, if such behavior was foolish. We knew it was fun.
You must understand, at that time, no one knew for sure “where” the virus lived in our body or how it accomplished its nasty deed of infecting and then killing its host. If you didn’t know how “AIDS”—known by 1983 as a medical syndrome but not yet as a virus—was actually transmitted, then a simple kiss would make you nervous. Guys who visually presented as if they had AIDS—weight loss, general fatigue—caught lots of shade. Guys actually wanted a belly so people would think they were “healthy” rather than infected. One group member was certain AIDS came from guys who self-treated with antibiotics in anticipation of a sex-filled weekend or vacation.
We had a friend, a healthy gym rat, who rapidly declined into wasting syndrome. Then a cancer ravaged his body in what his doctor said was record time. His doctor hadn’t seen such a rapid decline in an otherwise healthy 30-something.
Catherine D., 69, retired telecom worker, New Jersey
I remember walking down a block in SoHo [in New York City] with my gay friends José and Julio in spring 1981. José had The New York Times [with the first AIDS story in it] and was talking in hushed tones to Julio. “What are you guys talking about?” I asked them. José said, “It has nothing to do with you–you’re hetero.” Julio passed away, and I lost touch with José.