There are two kinds of survivors from the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980's. Those that contacted the disease and successfully are living with HIV/AIDS and those caretakers who cared for and buried dozens upon dozens of our friends.
Either way, together, the HIV/AIDS community went through and unbelievable deadly epidemic that nearly wiped out a generation of the gay men's community.
Michelangelo Signorile has written an extraordinary column about those early days:
It was a rainy day in Central Park in the summer of '92 when we attempted to send Michael Santulli's ashes aloft over Strawberry Fields in white, helium-filled balloons. It was one of those requests that Michael hadn't thought through in those hazy, painful last days of his life, and someone probably should have talked him out of it before he died. (That couldn't be me, because I wasn't there, for reasons I'll explain.) But now we had to do it. The balloons were weighted from the ashes and further depressed by the rain. They were often sputtering as we tried to fill them with helium, with clouds of ash going off in all directions. I finally got a balloon filled with both ashes and helium, and then, just as I was about to let it go up, it burst in my face. I had ashes all over my forehead and nose, and I felt a sharp, terrible pain: A bone fragment was in my left eye.
Michael was getting me back, I thought to myself, letting out a chuckle -- because, if you knew Michael, this was in line with the direct way he let you know what he was thinking. I'd neglected him, running away as he wasted away, his body ravaged in the horrific way that AIDS takes its course. Pia and Jay had nursed him, bathed him, there until the end. But I was too busy with the work of AIDS activism, or at least that's what I told myself, to be there as he faced death at the age of 32.
We'd been inseparable friends as college roommates at Syracuse and later as roommates in Manhattan. He turned me on to Nina Hagen and Lene Lovich and taught me much about music, art and fashion. As I was a publicist-turned-nightlife-columnist at the time, I took him to the hippest parties at Area and Danceteria and the other New York clubs, both of us dressed in the hip downtown black outfits that we often threw together from nothing.
In 1987, as the AIDS epidemic reached down deeper into younger gay men, we went together to be tested for HIV. Michael tested positive, and we both cried for an entire day. He responded to it by immersing himself deeper in clubbing and partying. I immersed myself in AIDS activism, as did thousands of others, positive and negative. I joined ACT UP in New York and used my media and publicity skills, eventually chairing the group's media committee, helping publicize protests and expose government neglect in the media.
My life, such as it was -- my career, many of my relationships -- fell apart. My family ties frayed, as everything became about AIDS and ACT UP. I believed our lives were over, no matter our individual HIV statuses. Our community was under siege. Right-wingers in Reagan-Bush America were talking about quarantine and tattoos. It was a go-for-broke moment. I co-founded OutWeek magazine, where I loudly criticized public figures who were gay and powerful but closeted, calling them out for hiding when so many of us needed them. I came under a lot of withering attack in the media, but none of it deterred me. As far as I was concerned, it was the end the world -- our world -- and I was going to go down kicking and screaming.
But looking back, it was also escapism itself, and in one sense it was similar to Michael's clubbing and partying. I was escaping the epidemic by immersing myself in the politics and urgency of it, which seems paradoxical but really does make a lot of sense. I didn't have time for sickbeds or funerals, I told myself, because I had a government scandal to expose or a protest to publicize or a powerful closet case to rail against. I gave myself a special dispensation on grief and heartbreak. There was no time for grief, especially when anger and indignation was so much more empowering. Of course, what I'm painfully learning 25 years later is that you can put grief off, but you can't ever escape it. Unless you process it, unless you deal with it, it haunts you for the rest of your life.