AIDS Anniversary: Thirty is the New Eternity

Thirty years ago this month, reports of unusual pneumonias among “active homosexuals” in Los Angeles (following earlier reports of eight cases of unusually aggressive Kaposi’s sarcoma among homosexual men) appeared in medical literature and then in newspapers.

What eventually was named AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) and what some have labeled the “first AIDS case” associated with June 5, 1981 reports seem, to many, to have always been with us. Remembering the time before AIDS/HIV is unimaginable. Imagining the tensions within “the” community of what we now call LGBTQ persons or the communities of what we struggled to call People Living with AIDS (PWLA) in this era of acronyms and initials is difficult. Imagining the fear, the devastation, the blatant and widespread stigma and discrimination is neither tempting nor easy.

And yet, as writer Sarah Schulman and others have noted, for those who remain it is almost impossible to think about history as anything other than Before AIDS and After AIDS.

Once a year, we all say “yeah, yeah ”—another year of AIDS and HIV. Another year of no cure, of rising statistics, of a now-global pandemic. Another year of the disease that changed the world.

But in marking the 30th anniversary, some people think of those who never made it to 30. We think of those who seemed like old men as the opportunistic infections raged through their bodies. Others think of how much longer some have lived than anyone expected. We rarely think that twenty years into the epidemic Freddie Mercury (of Queen) announced that he had AIDS—and the announcement of his death came one day later. Instead, the red ribbon makes its appearance yet again; a symbol that itself has a history beginning a decade into the pandemic when several organizations used it to signify support for PWLA. On anniversaries red ribbons reappear here, there, and everywhere, sometimes (as recently in San Francisco) in startlingly huge forms.

This year, for the 30th, the Smithsonian is undertaking an exposition. Alongside the NASA: Art (another anniversary linked to endings) and the ongoing celebration/commemoration of the Civil War’s 150th, the American History Museum opened an exhibit on June 3 entitled “Archiving the History of an Epidemic: HIV and AIDS, 1985-2009.” Isn’t that special?

Despite the archiving, or perhaps in part because of it, much lives on. People live on: many more of them than Magic Johnson, who first announced his HIV status in 1991 and has now reached a 20-year milestone. Activism, too, lives on. It survives. The anniversary pushed me to look up ACT UP, thinking it was long gone—a relic of another era. No. ACT UP New York continues. (In fact, there are two places to check this out: here and here.) Public service announcements live on as well. (Have you watched any television lately?) Paradoxically, die-ins live on, a form of protest characterizing ACT UP and other activist actions (think of Stop the Church) and now defined in large measure as anti-war protest; though it continues to be used in LGBTQ contexts around the tragedy of suicides like that of Tyler Clementi. An alliance-based LGBTQ movement lives on as well. Struggling, admittedly. Focused on what sometimes feels like minor middle-class or neo-liberal concerns like marriage, but it lives on.

These are victories, of course. And yet, every year, we’re not sure if the anniversary is something to celebrate, commemorate, or mourn. We’re still here, still queer. And yet too many are not.

The 30th wedding anniversary calls for pearls, various websites say. And yet, we have no weddings really, from the federal point of view. So what does the 30th mean? Is it the beginning of the end? The end of the beginning? The eschaton? For some, AIDS/HIV is one of the mythic horsemen of the apocalypse. The Salvation Army writes of the “three horsemen of the Russian Apocalypse—AIDS” Others write of the “hybrid horseman of the apocalypse: the global AIDS pandemic.” We debate whether an HIV-positive diagnosis—or even an AIDS diagnosis—is the end of the world. And we write of “the virus at the end of the world.” The victories seem somehow pyrrhic.

The age of AIDS lies somewhere between eschatology and apocalypse. Hence, Sarah Schulman’s 1990 novel, People in Trouble, began:

It was the beginning of the end of the world but not everyone noticed right away. Some people were dying. Some people were busy. Some people were cleaning their houses while the war movie played on television. [cited here]

As she puts it elsewhere:

The present does not resemble the past. We went through a mass death experience and then we took a break. Instead of constant morbidity there was puking, diarrhea, never-ending adjustments to toxic drug combinations, a lot of swallowing and a certain facsimile of robustness, everyone feeling “great.” Back to the gym. The funerals slowed or stopped and the neighborhoods changed, a new kind of AIDS body modification came into being. No more KS and wasting syndrome on the street, now we have the Crixovan Look: sunken eyes and a pot belly. Guys who are HIV can bulk up the way the steroid-pure cannot. Now they’re larger than ever. Some men got their power back. We could not, did not face what we had really endured. 

Thirty years later we have still not faced what we, and they, endured. Nor do we really face what people with AIDS and those who love them continue to endure across the globe and in our own neighborhoods. And perhaps, just perhaps, thirty is the new eternity.