When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) took the floor on Wednesday, March 25th to address the Senate in the midst of discussing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, he said something that caught the attention of many queer ears, certainly mine:
“Our nation obviously is going through a kind of crisis that is totally unprecedented in living memory.”
Unprecedented in living memory?
In all understanding, there is truth that I, a millennial living and writing in New York City, have never experienced a pandemic such as COVID-19 in my lifetime. I can validate the statement to that degree. But to the millions of gay men and queer folk who fought, died, or currently battle with HIV/AIDS, to say there is no one in living memory who hasn’t known the hardship of what we’re facing today is an insult.
When COVID-19 first started to appear in New York City, I was at once reminded of terrible times past: perhaps most importantly for me as a gay man, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
Robert Bryan, a Stonewall Veteran and former Men’s Fashion Director of The New York Times confided, “Indeed, there are many similarities with AIDS then and what’s happening now.”
"Our lives were at risk [during the AIDS crisis],” agreed Arnold Mungioli, who identifies as a Survivor. “We stayed informed. We took in and shared as much information as possible. We had no help from the White House. We were dependent upon ourselves and friends of our Community.”
Senator McConnell’s unconsidered observation instinctively reminds me of Vito Russo who participated in the ACT UP Demonstrations in Albany, NY (May 1988) and at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington D.C. (Oct 1988):
“If I’m dying from anything, I’m dying from the fact that not enough rich, white heterosexual men have gotten AIDS for anybody to give a shit.”
Or, as another Survivor said to me: “Maybe now straight people will know how we felt.”
Well, now that we find ourselves face to face with a virus that indeed threatens everyone, let’s break it down:
This virus is novel. This “crisis” is not.
On March 13th, President Trump declared COVID-19 a U.S. national emergency, which effectively opened up $50 billion in federal funding. For context, this action was taken only 52 days after the first confirmed case of the virus in the U.S.; 43 days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared “a public health emergency of international concern” for only the 6th time in world history; 16 days after the first confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.; and 2 days after WHO declared the virus a “pandemic.”
In a timeline comparison, AIDS cases began appearing in the U.S. in 1979. However, the epidemic wasn’t acknowledged as such until 1981; didn’t receive its name – Acquired Immunodeficiency Virus – until 1982; and HIV wasn’t discovered as the cause of AIDS until 1983.
That’s 4 years against Trump’s 52 days.
And on March 25th, the same day Senator McConnell addressed the floor with his “unprecedented” statement, the Senate passed The CARES Act, the largest economic rescue package in U.S. history, set at $2.2 trillion. The bill then went on to be approved two days later by the House of Representatives and President Trump.
So where was this bipartisan and financial support for those fighting an epidemic in the 80’s? Randy Shilts, an American journalist and AIDS victim, gave us an answer in 1987:
“The Reagan Administration, eager to cut the size of the Federal budget and reluctant to champion the needs of homosexuals or addicts, repeatedly resisted taking the lead against the epidemic. … The bitter truth was that AIDS did not just happen to America - it was allowed to happen by an array of institutions, all of which failed to perform their appropriate tasks to safeguard the public health.”
It is, by all means, a modern marvel that we are fighting COVID-19 as fast as we are. Much credit is due to those putting themselves on the frontline saving lives and working to find a cure. But the hypocrisy, and frankly privilege, of deeming which epidemic is worthy of attention in living memory is a hard, unprecedented pill to swallow.
Unfortunately, worth mentioning, there are two things that have remained the same between AIDS and COVID-19: fear and stigmatization.
Just as fear of transmission took hold in the 80’s, so did it with the social distancing of major cities on both coasts of the U.S. The toxic mix of ignorance and paranoia as to how COVID-19 could be contracted (though the CDC was quick to clarify) held the doors wide open for fear to become stigmatization.
As Marti Gould Cummings, drag queen and NYC Council Candidate for District 7, explains it:
During the AIDS crisis, our community was pushed to the side, ignored, and that virus was labeled a ‘Gay Cancer.’
Prior to its formal naming in 1982, that epidemic suffered its own labels. “Gay Cancer,” “Gay Plague,” or “GRID” (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). It wasn’t until September 1985 that President Reagan even addressed it by its name, well into his term.
On February 11th, in a conscious effort to avoid naming the virus after a geographical location, animal, or group of people, WHO announced the formal name COVID-19 – (Co)rona (Vi)rus (D)isease 20(19). WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus went on to add, “We need to fight in unison. And stigma, to be honest, is more dangerous than the virus itself. And let’s really underline that: Stigma is the most dangerous enemy.”
That, of course, did not stop President Trump from taking to Twitter with a total of seven tweets – still active on his account at the time this article was written – wrongly using the name “Chinese Virus.” Nor did it stop Secretary of State Michael Pompeo from using the name “Wuhan Virus” at a press briefing, to the dismay of G-7 European Officials who were present.
It did however result in the FBI needing to put out a statement on March 27th: "The FBI assesses hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the U.S. … based on the assumption that a portion of the U.S. public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations."
The point stands, through false names and a proven history of epidemics in this country, this “crisis” we’re experience is nothing new. It’s just claiming new victims this time, and those in control continue to look for scapegoats.
Nevertheless, regardless of number or cause of death, the impact of any single death still remains a significant loss to us all. Each valued no less than the rest. Notably to the LGBTQ community during this time, Tony-award winning playwright Terrence McNally who championed gay stories and chronicled the AIDS epidemic through his work so that generations to come, including myself, would have a voice to speak on topics such as this.
As Marc Acito, playwright and novelist, posed the questions to me:
Will we look back on this pandemic as the literal last gasp of the patriarchy? Will this crisis enable the power of love to overcome the love of power?
Come this November, when we’re hopefully free from social distancing and we take our rightful place at the voting polls, perhaps the outcome of the election will provide us an answer.
Let your frustrations, wherever they may lie in this tumultuous time, help shape this country. A country that deserves health while paying respects to its past. A country selflessly mobilized by love and community. A country that deserves a leadership as effective, as empathetic, and as proud as the people who define it, gay or straight.