THE BLOG
12/03/2014 09:54 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

AIDS: The Early Years

Don Bayley via Getty Images

I can barely remember a time before AIDS.

I graduated high school in May 1981 at age 17. (I'll do your math. I'm 51. You're welcome.) The day after graduation, I moved to Indianapolis to escape both farm life and parents unable to handle an out son.

Compared to life on the farm, Indianapolis was THE BIG CITY! And when I got there, I was shocked not only to discover so many others like me -- but they were all having a hella good time!

The summer of 1981. The last few months before the spectre began to rise. It's hard to believe, when you see Indianapolis now. Maybe it was the residual effects of the "sexual revolution" or the "disco era." Or maybe it was because I was a naive former farm boy. But gay men were seemingly everywhere. They had their own neighborhoods. Businesses! Neighborhood societies!

Being out wasn't an "alternative lifestyle" in those days. It was punk. You were a walking, talking political statement. We were beginning to get some acceptance, but we were still the mysterious "Other" to most. Yes, sex was omnipresent. But it was about more in those post-Stonewall years. It was the realization that, with self-acceptance, came great freedom. Yes, some of us chose to celebrate at bars and bathhouses. And others of us opened art galleries, restaurants, started magazines. Became designers. And writers. Or actors. But marriage?

Why would we want to do something stupid like that? We were thrilled to be exempt from society's rules.

To the rest of the world, we knew how to be just quiet enough. We were still underground in most places, so we learned an unspoken code, a way of "knowing" when we found ourselves with our own kind.

To the straight urban crowd, we were chic. An asset at any party or office. Disco may be dying, but we were really beginning to thrive.

July 1981: New York Times:

Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made.

I still remember my very first thought, flip though it was. "Of course, gays can't just get some run-of-the-mill cancer! Oh, no! We have to get some 'rare, tropical disease!'"

The gay guys I knew dismissed it, if they gave it any thought at all. If they had heard about it at all. How many conversations began those next few months with "Have you heard about this ... gay thing?" Almost all of the guys in my circles felt insulated from it -- it was happening in New York and San Francisco. Nobody knew anyone with this mystery disease.

I was a late bloomer. I had only been with two guys, both of which had been boyfriends, by 18. So maybe starting late saved my life.

Condoms? Hadn't entered the discussion. Safe sex? The term hadn't yet been coined. This disease didn't even have a name! Hell, the President of the United States refused to even address the crisis.

AYDS was still just an over-the-counter diet supplement. Can you imagine, when someone might have actually said, "I'm gonna run down to the corner to get pick me up some AYDS"?

Fall 1982. Joan Collins appears on the cover US Magazine. But above, a banner headline:

"Mysterious Cancer That's Killing Gay Men."

It was absurd! You can't "catch" cancer! I began to wonder, maybe gay people are defective, maybe something in our DNA is unbalanced... and I wasn't the only one with a crazy theory.

"It's guys who use poppers! That's what causes it!"

"You only have to worry if you swallow."

"It's the government! They're testing a new biological weapon!"

And those were the gay guys! Forget about the folks who claimed it was a curse from God.

Yet, most guys in Indianapolis still thought they were safe.

By 1983, AIDS had a name. I had a new boyfriend. But in Indianapolis, safe sex still hadn't seemed necessary.

In 1984, we moved to San Francisco. There was no living in denial at Ground Zero. The camp-out protest of AIDS fighters in Civic Center. The zombies struggling to walk down Castro Street. The posters about safe sex in the subway stations. The seemingly endless obituaries in the Bay Area Reporter. For the first time in my life, AIDS seemed real. It was inescapable. And it was scary to be in a city where 75 percent of the men were believed HIV-positive.

But, it was also reassuring -- almost comforting -- to be someplace where AIDS was on the front-page of the newspaper and opened the local news almost every single day.

My new boyfriend? He couldn't take it. Six months later, he moved back home.

About a year later, he learned that being back in Indiana didn't make him safe. Two years after that, he was gone.

What would life be like now, if AIDS had never happened? I can't imagine. You bet I practice safe sex now. In fact, I'm wearing a condom as I write this!

On a personal note: Despite being openly gay, my parents never addressed it after I came out. At most, my mom called it my "attitude" or being "that way." But I'm from Kokomo, Indiana -- Ryan White's hometown. And when my aunt began raising money to have Ryan thrown out of school, my mom was incensed. She and I talked about AIDS for the first time. And that let to talking about being gay. And that led, eventually, to the totally cool parents I have today.

AIDS is no longer a death sentence. And it's hard to believe the advances I have seen in gay rights in my lifetime. We're living in a gay new world.

Those hundreds of thousands of men and women did not die in vain. They were martyrs. Would we be talking gay marriage if AIDS hadn't forced gay issues onto the nightly news? If gay men hadn't fought for the right to be at their lovers' sides? It humanized us in the eyes of many, and reminded ourselves of our mortality. That the party ends for everyone, eventually, no matter what.

But you know what? I do really miss those early days, when we were more than an "alternative lifestyle."