(PA Photo by permission of a godlike Freddie Mercury)
The first thing you see: A bull's eye target asks "What is AIDS?" in simple graphics of lavender, yellow, red, and white. A looping sequence includes the outline of a chimpanzee pinned with a red HIV badge. Originating in Africa, the virus jumps from simian to human hosts: "Decolonization and vaccinations may have contributed to the spread." T-cells, opportunistic infections, and an ominous last word: "To date there is no cure."
AIDS in New York--the First 5 Years 1980 - 1985 (June 7 - September 15, 2013) at the New York Historical Society Museum
I'm an artist. I know what those years were like. This exhibit feels empty--all the people gone--whole lives seemingly erased. A series of adjoining rooms lead to nowhere, just the same sense of a lot of people and a lot of stuff about these people--gone missing. A genie blinked and everybody disappeared?
There had been a few hints beforehand. An infant in New Jersey. A woman working as a prostitute in San Francisco. A teen covered in warts and sores in St. Louis. A Norwegian sailor who'd visited sex workers in Cameroon. But now there were clusters of illness erupting in the insular, urban American gay communities. In New York City.
"There's something on the needles. A virus." The exhibit features old television sets that play old news broadcasts. Audio is a key component o f experiencing AIDS in New York--the First 5 Years.
Kaposi's Sarcoma and Pneumocystis Pneumonia among homosexual men. Strange infections resulting from immunocompromise, in early 1981. Medical journals were starting to recognize AIDS and people started using medical jargon, trying to understand what was happening. People started reading articles as they sat around on Fire Island. Cookie Mueller the Manhattan actress and celebrated personality remarked to several friends that she was doing just that when she suddenly realized that many friends were already infected. This exhibit features a marvelous photo of Cookie with her red panties pulled down, seated on a toilet seat looking like, well, Cookie Mueller.
Sickened men reported having sexual encounters with the same Canadian male flight attendant, Gaeton Dugas. At first, no connection was made. The New York Times ran few articles about AIDS, but when it did it said scientists had not discovered exactly how AIDS is transmitted. The stigma associated with AIDS in the early years was enormous. If a person publicly let on that they had HIV or God forbid, full blown AIDS, that person would be ostracized, possibly evicted from their apartment, fired from their job, shunned by others and doctors might even refuse to treat them.
AIDS was starting to be everywhere, but people were uncomfortable talking about it. Really scared. And if you were sick, nobody wanted to touch you. A child hemophiliac, Ryan White, was barred from attending school. A public swimming pool in West Virginia closed to the public in a panic over AIDS. Bath houses in San Francisco and New York closed.
Terrible words began to be spoken...the blood supply. The virus causing AIDS was in the New York blood supply, undetected and undetectable.
People panicked over AIDS because there were so many unknowns. How long will I live? Can I still eat in restaurants if I have AIDS? Can I have sex without telling my partner that I have AIDS? Which opportunistic infections am I likely to get and when? Will I live longer if I lie about it and deny having AIDS? Can I get AIDS from a public toilet or from saliva?
New Yorkers started holding vigils. There was just very little, if any help. If you had AIDS during this time period, you were a pariah.
Courageous Kenny Ramsauer died. He was a lighting designer and Manhattan hardware store owner. Over 1,500 people attended a Central Park memorial service for him, June 14, 1983. His handsome face had been disfigured by AIDS induced lesions, but he spoke out publicly, to help other victims and to raise awareness.
Mayor Koch spoke that night. It is scary what he said. He said that New York City would prosecute those who discriminated against AIDS victims, if discrimination was found to be illegal . . .
Politicians during the first decade or so of the AIDS epidemic were disgracefully homophobic. Research funds were cruelly curtailed. It was you see, the "gay plague," you know, for gays. Playwright Larry Kramer, New York Native newspaper, March 14, 1983 (price $1.50): "I repeat: our continued existence as gay men upon the face of this earth is at stake." The cover of this newspaper is part of the New York Historical Society's exhibit.
The impetus to break out of inertial apathy regarding AIDS came from the victims themselves and the people who loved them. Fellow artists nursed one another.
Gay Men's Health Crisis became one of the strongest, loudest AIDS-focused groups. Initial meetings were held at Larry Kramer's New York apartment (January 1982). Help was on the way.
There were fundraisers. Rallies. More and more vigils. More and more voices. You can see various artifacts in the exhibit about how to have safe anal sex. Don't come in your partner's ass and don't let him come in yours. The taboo was lifting. Oh so slowly.
Researchers and policy makers fought among themselves. The delays cost lives. We can never get back the living, beating hearts we lost and this exhibit is a reminder of the poverty of the world's first response to HIV/AIDS.
Neglect and inaction slew our loved ones. Mowed them down like lawn. But if Freddie Mercury is in his grave, so is Mayor Koch. May God rest their souls. Don't we wish them all back again, oh so ardently and with so many tears, don't we wish?
Follow Alison Winfield Burns on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GuerraEarth