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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Vito Russo's Our Time, Episode 4 - AIDS

This episode, which aired on WNYC-TV on March 3, 1983, focused on what was then the still-new epidemic of AIDS that was cutting a deadly swathe through the ranks of gay men. At this time, cases were still concentrated in big cities like New York and San Francisco, but the alarming news was filtering slowly into the hinterlands, where we were bewildered and afraid. As seen here, activists like Larry Kramer and Michael Callen were informing and organizing their brethren in the Big Apple - with the enormous help of our lesbian sisters, to whom we owe an enduring debt of gratitude - but between the coasts, rumor and confusion prevailed.

As you will see in the video, very little was known for sure about the HIV virus and how it was transmitted. Could you catch it by kissing someone? Hugging? Shaking hands? Breathing the same air? Sharing finger foods? Eating off the same plate, or drinking from the same glass? What about toilet seats? Not even the doctors were sure, and most doctors were themselves still uninformed of the latest research. News reports told of nurses and hospital staff refusing to touch or treat AIDS patients, who were sometimes flatly turned away from the hospital doors, or left to lie in hallways, unattended. Some funeral homes refused to accept the bodies of patients who died from the disease.

Politicians were starting to call for mass internment of people with HIV or AIDS, and your Head Trucker heard with his own ears the pontificating asshole and conservative pundit William F. Buckley calling for all men with HIV to be tattooed on their foreheads to warn the public to stay away from them.

All that seemed certain was that the virus was spreading among gay men, apparently like other sexually transmitted diseases. And yet, we read in the scanty, infrequent news reports, some men who had a "promiscuous lifestyle" seemed unaffected, while others who rarely had sexual partners were stricken. So what did that mean for us young gay men, newly out and relieved to be free from the soul-destroying closet of celibacy? Your Head Trucker remembers sitting in a gay rap group where this very topic was hotly discussed: some guys were ready to wall themselves away from all sexual contact, while others swore they would not change a thing they were doing until science had determined the exact cause - why go back to living like a lonely monk for no good reason?

And all this was before the concept of "safe sex," later cslled "safer sex," was really developed or publicized. The best advice the medical establishment could give in those early days, which most gay men in the provinces read in abbreviated news reports in gay porn magazines - even those were simply not available in most towns and cities or through the mail in most Southern states - was to "avoid exchanging bodily fluids" with other men. But what the hell did that mean, exactly? What is a "bodily fluid"? Blood? Cum? Piss? Spit? Sweat? Tears? For a long time, nobody bothered to clarify for us, and the national magazines and network news shows, when they did, at long intervals, mention the AIDS epidemic, were not about to descend into the gutter by specifying what was meant. Not even the word condom had ever yet been heard on American television.

Thus, many thousands of men died. It was a scary time to live through, a walk in the dark through a cemetery - no doubt unimaginable to the smartphone-toting, constantly linked-in younger generation. But important to remember.


Frank said...

These are on my "to watch" list. Just haven't gotten to them yet. But thanks for the posts.

Russ Manley said...

You're welcome.

Stan said...

I was working at OSU Hospitals when this was going on. I was a Pharmacy Tech administering meds to patients. For the AIDS patients you were supposed to gown up with mask and gloves. I never did any of that because I didn't want the guys to feel more isolated than they already were..

Russ Manley said...

Bless you for that, Stan.

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