Harrowing, Heroic, Vital: Survivors of the 1980s AIDS Crisis Share Their Stories

“The gay community was basically on their own.”

“Gay men who lived through the HIV Epidemic of the 1980s, what was it like?” starts a Reddit thread submitted by “Iowa2017.” 1,780 comments later, the forum has become a place for survivors of all sexual orientations to tell their stories. The important thread offers some forgotten reminders of that terrible time: the staggering number of funerals some people attended every week; the bald-faced discrimination of gay men; the vital contributions of lesbians as caregivers and activists in the community. Some highlights are below.

“The gay community was basically on their own. The US Government didn't take it seriously, and often avoided the subject, or slung nasty comments about it ‘being God's revenge,’ or ‘They got what they deserved.’ Please educate yourself about HIV, be cautious, and don't forget those of us who had to live through this.”

I am 43 now. I moved to new York (and came out) in 1989 when I was 17. it was like coming out into a war zone. but besides the grief, the rage and the death all around I want to emphasize how hopeful and spirited we were then. the gay community had cohesion then, their was unity. and visibility, a militant visibility. queer nation, act up, the lesbian avengers, the pink panthers.. these are just some of the groups whose posters and flyers you'd see everywhere. or you'd see them , everywhere, in gangs. everyone looked out for each other then.. I miss that unity. it's absent now.”

It was madness. It was terribly cruel. It was inexplicable and unexplained, for a very long time. Research was underfunded, and in many cases large institutions and public figures rooted for it to be happening. People died suddenly of unexplainable things. Toe fungus! Tongue thrush! Rashes. Eyes welling up with blood. Horrible shit.”

“Everyone knew it was hitting gay men, nobody knew what it was. They called it the gay cancer. People were very superstitious. I had handfuls of groceries and man lectured me on not pressing the elevator buttons with my nose because I could catch AIDS from it. Yes. That happened.”

“In the year I met my partner, 1990 I think, we were invited to more than 60 funerals. More than one a week. After a while , we just stopped going. I just didn't have any grief left to give. It made no sense. Guys would get sick from the only guy they'd ever been with. The guy I lost my virginity to died. Everyone I knew who dated him died, but I somehow dodged the bullet.”

There is a group of people that to this day get little credit for all the hard work they did during the crisis and that was the lesbian community. They were not directly affected by the spread of the virus but so many of them jumped on the bandwagon right at the beginning, gave everything they had helping out wherever they could and in many cases, led the way when things got really bad in the mid- to late 80's. We should all be eternally grateful to them for what they did.”


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