The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) became a part of my life right in the middle of the 1980s. I was a teen at the time, and living in the capital of Zimbabwe, Harare. My mother, a lecturer in social work and public health at the University of Zimbabwe, told me about the virus after she picked me up from school, Commercial Careers College, which was near the city's business district.
I wanted to listen to the music on my Walkman (the most beautiful girl in my class, Nancy, loaned me a cassette with her favorite music); my mother wanted me to listen to her. She described, as she drove, and as the downtown towers receded in the rear view mirror, an AIDS patient she had seen that afternoon at Parirenyatwa General Hospital: the sores, the sweating, the skin and bones, the bulging eyes. She also told me that HIV, the virus that caused the condition of AIDS, was new, incurable, and quickly spreading in Zimbabwe.
"How do you get it?" I asked as we approached our neighborhood, Chisipite, on Enterprise Road.
"Sex," my mother said.
I had at this point completely lost interest in the mixed tape.
Two years later, my mother returned home from work with a videocassette in her shopping bag. She showed it to me with a face that said: This is for you, Charii.
I looked at the videocassette with the expression: Mother has gone completely mad. I had never seen her enter a movie theater, or turn on the TV, or even notice the device beneath the TV set that my father, a civil servant, purchased during a state visit to Yugoslavia. And now mom was recommending something for me to watch on video?
I looked at the sharpie-written title on the videocassette's label. It read: Intimate Contact. This was too shocking. It sounded like one of those soft-porn Emmanuelle films that starred Sylvia Kristel. All the boys had those videocassettes hidden under their beds. What was my mother up to?
Intimate Contact turned out to be a TV drama that had just come out in the UK. Everyone was talking about it because the drama added a new chapter to the popular understanding of AIDS. At that time, AIDS was known as the gay disease. It was something that happened when you had the kind of sex gay men have. I and many others came to this understanding. We all heard those stories about San Francisco. The bathhouses. That kind of thing. In fact, I recall thinking—when a brilliant and muscle-hard rugby player (a fly-half) pulled out and showed the team, in the locker room, his huge, black cock with so much pride—"Now, this is San Francisco." All sorts of San Francisco happened in those hyper-hetero locker rooms.
We watched Intimate Contact together after dinner. My sister was upstairs reading, my father was in his bar next to the veranda, my baby brother was sleeping on the back of the maid, as she cleaned dishes. The drama concerned an affluent British businessman who visits New York City, gets very drunk, has sex with a prostitute, catches the virus during intercourse, and returns to his country, suburban home, wife thinking he had a jolly good time of it in the Big Apple. Just 18 months later, he's skin and bones. His eyes are bulging. He is confined to a wheelchair. He is as good as dead.
Intimate Contact was groundbreaking because, as the Associated Press reviewer, Matt Wolf, put it, the drama dealt "with the disease among heterosexuals rather than in the homosexual milieu in which the majority of AIDS cases in United States and Europe [were] found."
When my mother first introduced me to HIV, this aspect of the matter was fuzzy. Was the man she saw at Parirenyatwa General Hospital gay? We never really discussed homosexuality in the house. My father and mother neither said anything negative or positive about it. My knowledge of the queer world came from parties I attended with my biology teacher's sister Nancy (she was a lesbian), and the hits and music videos of Man 2 Man ("Male Stripper"), Sylvester ("You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)"), and Bronski Beat ("Smalltown Boy").
And then there was Ronald Reagan. The president of America. The man holding the most powerful political office in the world. From this high position, he pretty much told the whole world that AIDS was nothing but a gay problem. He and his aides laughed about it. So, don't worry. Be happy.
"Men," my mother said after we watched the Intimate Contact, "they sleep around, catch it, and give it to their wives."
"By having sex?" I asked.
"Yes, they have sex with this woman outside of their house, and then have sex with the woman in their house, and the woman gets AIDS, and the husband blames it on the wife, because that's how African men do."
I honestly can't recall watching another movie or TV drama with my mother. Intimate Contact is either the only one, or the only one my memory preserved. And it changed my life. I saw sex from the viewpoint of the virus. HIV said to me: You can do it however you like, but for me, the virus, fucking is fucking. Infection this way is infection that way.
It's hard to fully express this kind of revelation in a young mind. For so long, you are told by your society that there's something fundamentally different from and a man loving a woman, and a man loving a man. And then you are introduced to an illness that makes nonsense of this distinction. "There are few people around to whom AIDS had happened in a straight situation," said Daniel Massey, the star of Intimate Contact, to the AP reporter. "People really thought it was a gay disease."
The consequence of the transformation that occurred in the living room of the house on 7 Bay Nokes Road, Harare was, one, homosexuality was no longer outside of my world, but very much a part of it. The virus universalized my concept of sex. I now saw the insistence of sexual distinctions as cultural, not natural. But this did not mean the cultural is an illusion, something that's dispelled once the scales fall from the eyes. What might be a bunch of words (the gay plague, or Make America Great Again, or All Lives Matter) can have devastating and long-term effects on millions of humans.
The second thing that happened after watching Intimate Contact, which I fear to watch again because I'm certain it is a badly conceived and filmed drama (and it has a moralistic angle that I now completely reject—sleeping with a sex worker is sleeping with "the devil inside"), I feared sex for a good part of my life. My early sexual encounters always ended with a post-coital state racked by thoughts of the disease that might have entered me. Even if I used a condom, which was almost all of the time, I would leave my partner's apartment, return to my place, shower, enter my bed, and imagine what the virus was doing in my body for the rest of the night: multiplying, spreading, replicating, cell after cell destroyed.
It's hard to described this kind of suffering, or the suffering I went through while waiting for the results from a test. Back then, it took a week to learn if you were negative or positive. It was a whole week of worry. But I never got a positive result; the tests always came back negative. Condoms apparently worked.
This brings me to face masks. They are the condoms of the present pandemic, the novel coronavirus. In the age of AIDS, a condom provided a lot of information about a person. If you used it, it said this thing about you; if you didn't, it said another thing. The same goes with face masks. Those who refuse to use them are saying a lot about who they are and what they believe in.
There is another similarity between the early stages of the HIV pandemic and COVID-19 one. Recall the "silence=death" movement of the 1980s. It was clear to the rainbow community that identifying the virus as gay resulted in governmental inaction. Ronald Reagan said nothing and by 1989, some 89,343 people died in the US without a chance.
By the end of his presidency in 1989, Reagan had done nothing of substance, and the United States had suffered 89,343 deaths. The death rate was still rapidly rising, and more than 300,000 would be dead before the epidemic came under better control seven years later. Stigma had triumphed, and the death toll of young gay men was the fruit of its labor.
Are we not doing something similar today with COVID-19? Inaction and a growing silence in the White House has resulted in 120,000 American deaths in the space of four months. Viruses love Republicans.