The Queer Issue
Here's what you need to know about what gay life was like before 1996, before life-saving treatments for HIV came online: that it was fucking hell on earth; that gay men lived through a virtual holocaust; that death was everywhere, and before death, there was total, enervating, soul-destroying fear.
I meet young gay guys today and they don't know what it's like to watch your best friend pound the floor with his fist in agony because the pain won't stop; to pick up a buddy off the carpet when you drop by after work, and see his brittle bones covered in fresh gray diarrhea; to see a friend wake up one day and be unable to tie his shoelaces because toxoplasmosis had eaten half his brain away; to have your shirt cuff brush past a friend's skin and have him scream in agony because of neuropathy; to dance on a disco floor next to a rail-thin guy covered in KS lesions who knows this is the last time he'll dance to anything; to open up the local gay rag and find 10 pages of obits where the real estate ads now sit; to hear a friend speak of watching as a needle is pushed into his open eyeball to alleviate the threat of CMV; to see your date consume two handfuls of toxic drugs twice a day to do something about a virus that would nevertheless kill him at the age of 29; to hear of couples torn apart and bereaved lovers thrown out of their homes because their in-laws hate them and their husbands just died; to scan the eyes of a doctor to see if he's lying to you about your prognosis; to catch the face of an old man on the street and realize seconds later that he was a friend who looked 25 only a few months before; to attend more funeral services than happy hours; to feel shame because of an illness; and to endure sickness knowing that there is no end or future except pain and death.
In 1996 I wrote an essay, "When Plagues End," that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. It was easily the most offensive thing I ever wrote, as far as the AIDS establishment was concerned. I was flayed alive for saying the obvious: that this was a huge deal, an end to AIDS-as-plague. And yet, 10 years on, everything in it was right. And the refusal to acknowledge that at the time, while understandable, was sad. We never got our moment of celebration. We never got that day on the beach in Longtime Companion. We denied ourselves the relief that we deserved.
The young generation doesn't remember the horrors, and in many ways, I'm glad they don't. They live in the world that began in 1996, a world that the victims of AIDS longed for and never dreamed of finding. But there was a world before then. And it's staggering how fast we have moved on, how complete the amnesia has been. At some point, we'll remember. But part of the weirdness of the PC mantra that nothing changed that year, that we should not have marked the passage from plague to disease, is that we erased part of our own history and denied a critical part of our past.
In my view, we should establish a celebratory day to remember the year we turned the corner, to commemorate the lost generations, to recall the awful price paid for the era of total liberation. The corner was turned in part because gay men and lesbians heroically rescued themselves, funded research, demanded change, cared for each other, and refused to take any more shit from the powers that ignore. I do not miss AIDS, but I miss the passion and love it spawned. It was a terrible, terrible time—but it was also our finest hour. We need our own armistice day, to honor those who helped make it happen, to mourn those who never saw the dawn, and to recall the moment when the terror ended, and life began, again.
Andrew Sullivan is the author of, most recently, The Conservative Soul. He blogs daily at www.theatlantic.com.