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CORONA VIRUS and HIV/AIDS: Lessons from the AIDS epidemic can help save lives today

The AIDS protest group Act-Up demonstrates in front of the White House demanding more money for AIDS research.  CREDIT: Getty Images

This article was first published in The Daily Kos.

As a young labor organizer and a gay activist, I became a member of the steering committee that led the fight against California Proposition 64 in Los Angeles, a plan to put gay men and people with AIDS in camps.  It was 1986.

Autoimmune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) had become a tsunami in Africa and across the globe but was still largely ignored by the Reagan administration.  Unlike Africa and other continents where primarily heterosexual people were becoming infected, gay men and IV drug users were the first to be stricken in large numbers across the United States.  The concentration of cases within these marginalized communities (quickly followed by a disproportionate number of deaths among African Americans and hemophiliacs) brought out the worst in conservative Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell who were quick to blame the epidemic on its victims.  President Reagan also allowed his prejudice to guide his response.  For over four years he refused to even utter the word AIDS and ignored the cries of public health experts who urged him to take action and allocate resources to fight it.

By the mid-eighties the LGBTQ community was under full-blown attack.  While thousands of our friends and family were sick and dying, Lyndon LaRouche, a right-wing conspiracy theorist, seized the epidemic to promote himself politically.  He ignored the solid research of established scientists that had determined HIV was spread by intimate contact with an infected person or their blood, claiming instead that the virus was spread through casual contact like the common cold and that the World Health Organization and the CDC were “viciously lying to the public”.  He then formed an organization he called PANIC — “Prevent AIDS Now Initiative Committee” and paid people to gather signatures for a proposition to be put on the ballot in California.  The result was Proposition 64, which would have mandated the creation of concentration camps for hundreds of thousands of gay men and people with HIV, including children.  At a time when we were losing so many of our loved ones, this initiative forced the community to take action.  We responded like never before and built a campaign that galvanized people across the state — gay and straight.  By the end of the summer, we had succeeded in defeating LaRouche’s initiative. In the process, we developed a level of political power and organizing skill that helped build long-lasting community organizations and had a profound impact on our place in American society.

As I have hunkered down in my home these last few weeks and watched the Corona Virus epidemic explode across the U.S. and the planet, I am struck by how many aspects of the current political response mirrors what we experienced during the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  It was a scary, harrowing time and was made much worse by the abysmal response of President Reagan who, like Trump, put politics and prejudice ahead of public health.  Then as now, this resulted in many more infections and deaths that could (and should) have been avoided.  These similarities have led me to look back at how the gay and lesbian community responded more than three decades ago and at the effect that all that work had on the epidemic and on our country.  While we have not eradicated HIV/AIDS, we did ultimately find treatments that today have allowed millions of people to live long lives even after infection (as long as they can afford it).  It took years to find the right drugs and a herculean effort by thousands of professionals and volunteers to slow the spread of HIV.  In the process, we learned many valuable lessons – lessons that can be applied to the crisis at hand and help us navigate the coming days and months in our fight to overcome Covid – 19.  Here are some of the most salient:

  1. Testing and Contact Tracing is critical.  Once the method of transmission was understood, an enormous effort was made to encourage anyone who had sexual contact with an infected person, gay men, hemophiliacs and IV drug users, to get tested.  In an effort to save lives, contacts of those who were positive were identified and also urged to get tested.  This was the ONLY means of slowing the spread of the virus and without a doubt saved millions of lives.  I would even go so far as to say that without all that effort by many people over many years, we may easily have seen the spread mirror most other parts of the world.  There could have been just as large of an explosion of HIV in the general community in the U.S.  People do sleep with each other all the time, after all.  But HIV is much harder to transmit and the spread was much slower than what we dealing with now.  In the face of the coronavirus, HIV looks like a luxury disease.  This new pandemic is moving like wildfire because it does spread through a simple cough.  We need to follow the guidance of Dr. Fauci and other medical leaders and scientists (who gained their expertise through the HIV/AIDS epidemic) in every respect, including testing as many as possible as quickly as possible.
  2. Don’t waste your time with conspiracy theories.  In the early days of the HIV epidemic LaRouche was not the only one spreading conspiracy theories about its origin.  There were rumors that some kind of bio warfare germ had been spread in gay bath houses in New York City and that this was the cause of the epidemic.  I have heard similar theories about a bio-lab near Wuhan.  With coronavirus, scientists have already traced its roots to a wet market where, like HIV, it jumped from wild animals to humans.  Regardless, any such debate is a waste of time.  It really doesn’t matter if the conspiracy were true or not.  Conspiracy theories are only about blaming someone else or worse, failing to take responsibility for what we can do today.  All that matters is that we stop the spread as quickly as possible and that takes responsible, consistent action by all of us like staying home as long as necessary and using a mask.
  3. Once it sinks in, the numbers are overwhelming.  I will never forget the day I heard Surgeon General C. Everett Koop present his report to the California Legislature.  I had been invited to join a group of gay community leaders who were involved in lobbying for money for HIV testing and services for people with AIDS.  The Surgeon General’s speech was very progressive at the time because unlike Reagan, Koop refused to be silent. He put ideology aside and relied on his own medical experience and other professional health experts to guide his policy recommendations, including “a call to action for sex education and AIDS prevention” .

    Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, testifying before House Energy & Commerce Health & Environment Subcomm., re AIDS and condoms. (Photo by Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

    As we sat in the balcony of the hall packed with legislators from across the state, he laid out his agenda for addressing the crisis.  The speech was impressive and I was very moved, but what I remember the most was my reaction later.  That night I flew home, walked into my kitchen and collapsed sobbing into the arms of my girlfriend.  It took a few hours, but the gravity of Koop’s message had sunk in.  For the first time I understood that it was not just the dozens of friends and acquaintances I knew already.  Many thousands of people were going to die.  This is exactly the moment we are in now.  This is what it means when they say we should prepare for the “worst week yet.” Thousands of people we all know and love are going to die.  Prepare to grieve.

  4. We will lose plenty of talent.  About 32 million people have died worldwide since the start of the AIDS epidemic and even more are living with it today.  In the early years, we lost so many celebrities – Alvin Ailey, Isaac Asimov, Nureyev, Arthur Ashe – and thousands of men and women who were not as famous, but touched so many lives around them.  Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if the men I knew and loved – many of them very talented leaders, artists, thinkers, athletes – had survived.  Yesterday I awoke to the news of John Prine’s passing.  He was one of the most influential songwriters of my childhood.  My family’s hippie church had a half dozen of his tunes in our songbook and we sang them religiously nearly every week.  I immediately turned on YouTube and played an early video of him performing Souvenirs.  Then I cried all morning.
  5. There are no “special” people.  It may be human nature to look for things that make us special.  We want to identify with “winners”, “heroes” and “greats” and we assume that if they are special (as we wish to be) then they are immune.  This is not the case.  Yesterday the U.K.’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson was moved to intensive care.  As a leader who doesn’t believe in trusting experts and scientists, he ignored the warnings and failed to practice social distancing.  In essence, he thought he was special and had the magical immunity that many right-wing conservatives are still clinging to.  The reality is that you may be able to affect politics and policy based on beliefs, but you cannot believe your way into immunity.  Period.  This week Baton Rouge Pastor Tony Spell told the Washington Post “We feel we are being persecuted for the faith by being told to close our doors.”  I expect we will see a jump in deaths from churches like these and the communities around them where their followers may continue to ignore expert guidance.  Christian evangelist fundamentalism is grounded in the belief that followers are “special” because they have been saved.  Every aspect of their belief system and politics flows from the idea that they have a unique relationship with God and a better understanding of what they (and all the rest of us) should do or not do.  This same rhetoric was used against the gay community, Africans and African Americans to point the finger of responsibility back to the victims rather than expend resources saving lives.  It happened during the great plague in Europe too. As millions were dying some people went to crazy lengths and joined religious cults in an attempt to be “special” enough to save their lives.  Large groups of Flagellants, for example, went from town to town lashing their backs bloody and whipping up townsfolk into a frenzy of religious fervor.  It didn’t help.  More likely, the public gathering and blood-letting only made things worse.  Similar episodes are playing out online as well as in churches such as a Texas woman who died of Covid-19 last week.  She was convinced that the epidemic was a “media-driven hoax” and had expressed her outrage on Facebook writing “You don’t need hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and Lysol. You need common sense, a sense of direction, faith, a will to fight, and of course guns!”  Her beliefs didn’t save her but honest, fact-based reporting might have.
  6. Fear comes easily and often leads to violence.  Little is more predictable these days than right-wing conservatives blaming a group of ‘different’ people for a crisis and then taking the first opportunity to attack them violently.  Gay bashing nearly moved from the fringes to the mainstream at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.  Now, thanks to our President’s misdirection and use of the phrase “Chinese Flu,” violent attacks against Asian Americans have risen sharply.  Absolutely everyone everywhere must speak out against this race-baiting.  Not only is it unwarranted and inaccurate, but the very idea that a single ethnicity or group of people spread the virus will only cost more lives.  I used to wonder at the insanity of these incidents since violently attacking people you think may be exposed increases the risk of exposure to their blood and thereby transmission.  This time around, all you have to do is breathe.  More importantly, it reinforces the idea that somehow if you could eliminate one group of people you could avoid becoming infected.  This is not a group infection, it is a human disease.  In fact it’s just the kind of pandemic that climate change experts have been predicting for years.  If there is anyone to blame, it’s all of us for not heading their warnings. This is exactly why we need more leaders like Surgeon General Koop who had the strength to put his political views aside and use his platform to focus instead on spreading accurate information and saving lives.
  7. The enemy is the same – conservative Christians’ deeply held belief in their superiority, white supremacy and a rejection of science.  As mentioned above, conservative evangelicals believe that a ‘special’ event – the experience of being born again – sets them apart from others.  They see themselves as superior because their religion’s core message is that they are the ‘chosen ones.’ They are the few who will go to heaven when others who have not had the same enlightenment experience (or whom the bible says are sinners) will not.  This is fundamental to their world view.  It took me many years of living in the southern United States to understand how deep this belief in personal superiority is.  For many people it is essential to their sense of self.  This is especially true for white conservatives whose superior religious position is intertwined with their faith in white supremacy.  This makes rejection of scientific inquiry not only easy, but essential.  One must dismiss a lot of facts if you believe that the only way to get into heaven is to be superior in some way to other people. More to the point: if heaven is a zero sum game, then everyone else MUST loose.  This is the kind of fundamentalism that both Bush presidencies were known for.  Trump, too, built his following and then his presidential campaign on white supremacist conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birthplace. It is where conservative religion and white supremacy meet because as soon as you reject facts in favor of personal superiority, the suffering of others does not matter.  This world view is most dangerous at a time like now.  It is not ignorance, it’s the core belief among people who truly think that their faith will save them and who have told me that even if they die, they are the only ones who will get to go to the right heaven anyway.
  8. Leaders who ignore the facts can kill.  Not every country experienced the explosion of the virus within the gay community or among IV drug users as in the U.S.  There was always plenty of evidence that it was not a gay disease. However, it did start in Africa and spread quickly among straight populations on that continent and within the African American community.  These facts served as the perfect combination for conservatives across the country (most notably President Bush) to leverage as an excuse to attack the victims and avoid providing resources.  Millions of people were infected with HIV and died needlessly as a direct result of the stigma attached to AIDS in the United States.  Today it is the same religious and political conservatives who are refusing to close their churches and insist that the coronavirus is a hoax.  By doing so, they mirror policies like the Bush administration’s ban against discussion of condoms and safe sex practices when distributing AIDS education funding. It’s been 30 years since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and today there are over 39 million people infected with HIV.  Yet HIV is so much more difficult to transmit than Covid-19.  It is critical that good leaders who are willing to consider scientific facts and act on the advice of experts take the reins before we see the loss of millions people here and around the globe.
  9. Scientists are really smart, compassionate and they know what to do.  There is good news in comparing the AIDS epidemic and Covid-19.  Precisely because of the AIDS crisis, we have a national and global community of epidemiological experts with deep experience we can trust.  This is an enormous advantage that did not exist in the 1980’s.  Doctor Fauci has emerged as a leader in recent weeks because he has the experience and expertise we so desperately need.  It is also worth noting that because he started his career through HIV/AIDS work, he is uniquely qualified to deal with leaders like those in the Trump administration who prefer their own story.  He’s seen this playbook before.  Now Dr. Fauci is facing attacks from trolls and from within the administration.  He needs all the help and support he can get if he is going to remain in his current role as a public health communicator.  We need him to stay right where he is – on our TV screens every day.
  10. Women will always rise to the challenge.  There’s an old joke that goes “An army of ex-lovers cannot fail.”  This was usually applied to the lesbian community due to our habit of maintaining friendships with old partners.  During the height of the AIDS epidemic when virtually all of us were losing dozens of friends every year, thousands of lesbians and other women joined their gay male friends and stepped up to care for our fallen.  We fed and housed them, drove them to clinics and hospitals, sat by the bedside and made millions of phone calls in search of resources. We filled out mounds of paperwork for friends too sick to get help on their own.  We too laid down in the streets in protest to fight for those services.  As the Corona pandemic has impacted life around the world, women are carrying a great burden on all fronts – as service workers, at home trying to work while parenting, in hospitals and nursing facilities where we make up 70% of medical staff, etc.  For women losing jobs or income, it’s often harder to recover financially since our paychecks are smaller on average to start with.  Once again, this crisis is highlighting the vulnerability of women and families in an economic system that undervalues our work and provides few safety nets.
  11. People of color will be hit bigger and harder.  This is an issue that emerged early and still exists with new HIV/AIDS cases today.  According to the CDC in 2018 there were nearly 30% more black vs. white men who contracted HIV through male to male contact.  The percentage of heterosexual African American women vs. new cases among their white peers is even higher.  As the death toll from Covid-19 rises, the alarm bell is ringing once again because in many areas people of color are dying at a much higher rate.  This has everything to do with lack of access to healthcare, the funds to pay for it and higher rates of poverty.  It is what happens when a group of people are undervalued and oppressed for generations.  There is really no excuse for the fact that nearly forty years after the first American AIDS cases were identified such a glaring disparity should continue with either virus.
  12. We have to fight…  fight like hell on every front.  It took a few years for people to organize in large numbers during the AIDS epidemic.  When the first few dozen people died and it was clear that gay men were especially vulnerable, there were articles in the community press and whispers grew into larger conversations pretty quickly.  But as dozens became hundreds and then thousands of people dying around the country, the outcry from the gay and lesbian community was loud and consistent.  We lobbied for health care and research funding from the CDC.  We argued for testing, for clinics and to expedite trials for early experimental drugs like AZT.  It was the AIDS crisis that brought some of us out of the closet and carried gay politics into the mainstream.  We had no choice.  We were dying and we were under attack by a right-wing political agenda that aggressively sought to silence our voices and marginalize the growing loss of life.  Within the community there were roaring debates between different activists over strategy.  Was it better to push for policy within the establishment and cultivate political allies or should we protest in the streets?  “Queer” was added to gay/lesbian during this period as a descriptor for our community by those who were outraged by the government’s poor response to an epidemic that was killing us.  Along with the ACT UP slogan “Silence = Death”, calling ourselves queer was a way to say “We’re here!  We are not going away and we are not going to hide!”  We challenged politicians who held the purse strings to funds that were desperately needed to care for the sick and to find a cure.  At that time, I was working on policy and not always a fan of the “in your face” approach.  In retrospect, however, the lesson is clear: we need all of it.  It took all of us working inside traditional channels, building new organizations within the community and protesting in the streets to make the changes that had to happen if we were going to save lives.
  13. When we fight for the resources, we win.  As I watch this new pandemic overtake our country, I am outraged.  I see the same playbook being used to fragment our society at the very moment we need to pull together and support each other the most.  But I am not disheartened.  I have lived through this before and I know what is possible when we do stand up against lies and disinformation.  Even with the loss of so many of our brothers and sisters, the gay and lesbian community grew stronger.  We raised millions of dollars and built institutions that still serve us today.  It can be done but action and activism is required — and there is no time to lose.

    LONDON, ENGLAND – MAY 31: A man and child raise their fists in the air as they join a spontaneous Black Lives Matter march at London’s Trafalgar Square to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

  14. This will change society.  Over the course of about ten years, I watched it happen.  Straight people who would never have admitted to having a gay brother or aunt began to speak of their loved ones more openly.  Corporate leaders joined committees and boards for organizations dedicated to fighting AIDS and fundraisers grew along with a proliferation of red ribbons at the Oscars.  In the long run, and at great cost, our fight to save our friends and lovers brought about a level of acceptance and integration into society that we hardly dared to dream of when I was first coming out in 1979.  The legalization of gay marriage is one of the most dramatic examples of how far the will to fight for your lives can affect change.  The question is: what change do we want to see?  What are we willing to fight for now that our lives are on the line?
  15. Elections Matter.  Imagine if a democratic president like Jimmy Carter had still been in office when HIV hit the United States?  What would the reaction of a humanitarian leader have been as compared to Ronald Reagan and what difference could it have made?  Some democratic leaders are stronger than others.  Some more or less compassionate.  But remember that President Carter had the vision to put solar panels on top of the white house way back in 1979.  Today his solar farm is providing half of the energy for his hometown in Georgia.  How would Hillary Clinton have responded to the coronavirus crisis?  Would she have ever made a statement like “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear” or threaten to withhold supplies and emergency funding from Governors “who don’t treat you right.”  This is not rhetoric.  These are important questions because lives are on the line.  For all of the weaknesses of the Democratic party, regardless of religion or one’s political leanings, we all have to ask ourselves whether we can really afford to ‘drain the swap’ that is Washington D.C. of its institutions, intelligence and expertise.  We are living with the results of decades in which the Republican southern strategy, aligned with conservative Christians and corporatocracy, has succeeded in leaving the halls of our government so empty of experience, expertise and strong leadership that a man like Donald Trump was able to waltz right through the void and into the presidency.  Now we are all paying the price, including the millions of human beings who live in the southern states and are now on the precipice of a health disaster unseen since World War I. Unlike the last flu pandemic, however, we know what to do. President Obama had left the country well prepared for another outbreak like this.  Then Trump threw out the plans, the teams and even the department staff who were at the ready and could have helped our country avoid the enormous losses we are only beginning to see now.  This is why elections matter.  By all accounts this week’s voting in Wisconsin is a pre-cursor of what is likely to come if Republican strategists continue to subvert the democratic process and suppress the vote in November.  If we want to have any say in the direction our country takes during and after this epidemic, every American must be able to vote and everyone who cares will have to work hard to ensure that all votes are counted.
  16. We are the moral majority.  Why do we love disaster movies?  I think it’s because they are always about life and death situations that bring out the true character of the people involved.  Until effective treatments were discovered, HIV/AIDS was a monumental crisis in the United States and, of course, for millions all over the world.  We lost a nearly unimaginable number of people in a very short amount of time — people with whom we shared life and love, fun, pain and pride.  It’s impossible to measure what society as a whole lost in terms of talent, art, productivity, great leadership, literature, etc.  But we also gained something of immense value.  In the face of great loss, millions of Americans from all walks of life stood up.  They rejected centuries of taboos and laws against homosexuality and declared their love for family, friends and colleagues they had lost to HIV/AIDS.  They gave money, put on ribbons and talked freely about a beloved uncle who had previously been relegated to silent shadows on the family tree.  We did so because we knew it was simply immoral not to.  When we did, we found we were not alone and this made all the difference.  We can do the same thing now.  Despite what FOX News and the conservative voices would have you believe, progressive politics and liberal social views are still the majority.  If this was not the case, Republicans would not work so hard to suppress voting rights.  We know what to do and how to win. The only question is when.  How many will die before we are ready to stand up, head into the streets and the board rooms and fight again?

Despite what FOX News and the conservative voices would have you believe, progressive politics and liberal social views are still the majority.  If this was not the case, Republicans would not work so hard to suppress voting rights. 

We lost many great people and important leaders through the AIDS epidemic.  We are about to lose as many if not more with this new virus.  This is both scary and heartbreaking.  At the same time, we should remember that an entire generation of leaders cut their teeth on organizing as a result of the HIV/AIDS crisis and won many victories.  We can do this again.  Many of those early organizers went on to pursue professional lives, built organizations and ran for office. They became doctors and healthcare workers and continued to make a difference in people’s lives for over three decades.  We don’t have to start over again.  Many of us are still around and have a wealth of experience and expertise to share.

A final thought: One afternoon in the middle of the No on 64 campaign, I was working in the Los Angeles headquarters where I overheard a conversation I will never forget.  About half a dozen young gay men in their early 20’s were busy stuffing envelopes around a couple of long tables in the middle of the office.  I sat on the side working with a staff member on contribution reports.  They had come in on a bright, sunny Saturday to volunteer their time and energy to save lives and stop a terribly misguided piece of legislation.  It could have put them all in camps within months if it had passed.  Unlike myself, who tends to work too much and usually very seriously, these guys turned the whole place into a party.  They gossiped and joked and laughed uproariously for a couple of hours while they worked.  The Gay Pride Parade was just a week away, which prompted a wild discussion about the costumes they planned to wear, each more outrageous than the next.  It was thoroughly entertaining and after a while I found myself deeply moved.  I couldn’t help but be struck by the way they laughed and played and chose to enjoy life even at such a dangerous time.  In all likelihood, some of them were already HIV positive and could soon be sick or dying but that’s not where they put their focus.  Those beautiful men taught me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned that day.  No matter what is happening or who is threatening to take us down, we must live and enjoy life.  It’s the most precious thing we have.

It’s worth fighting for.

 

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