Pride, 80s Style: Celebrating Our Lives When No One Cared That We Were Dying
The motto of my first Pride parade was “Unity and More in ’84.” If you think this is ancient history, I can assure you it’s not. Pride in ’84 meant then, as now, that despite the insults and assaults we faced other days, for one weekend at least, we had each other and we were beautiful. Next came “Alive with Pride in ’85,” with “alive” being the operative word. If it was possible to spend 1984 having only heard about the “gay plague,” by 1985 AIDS had touched almost every one of us. Pride in ’85 felt like a wake.
President Reagan, “the Great Communicator,” stayed resolutely silent about AIDS as the death toll kept climbing. Members of his administration, though, freely told the press that it was our own damn fault. So much for policy. In 1986 at a centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty, comedy legend Bob Hope cracked, “I hear Lady Liberty has AIDS. Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry.” The Reagans, who were present, laughed. By the end of that year, US AIDS deaths topped 11,000, with tens of thousands infected and no treatment in sight—my friends among them.
Can you imagine if Leno joked about the victims of the Boston bombings or the Oklahoma tornadoes? What if the president did nothing but laugh? It was as bad as it sounds. To quote a 1986 episode of Designing Women, AIDS was “killing all the right people.” Clearly, to survive, we could only truly count on those personally affected by it.
In 1987, five years in, the Reagan administration finally took some measure of leadership. AIDS historians still argue about what could have happened and what should have happened, but they surely must agree on what spurred the progress we made in this country to fight AIDS: relentless, unflinching activism by LGBT people and our allies.
Now that it’s been 18 years since anyone in my life died from AIDS, my anger has softened. I even publically praised Dubbya for his commitment to the issue. Yes, yes, I know about the abstinence-only garbage that passed for public-health education, but Bush did show commitment that his predecessors were afraid to. I’ll give him that.
We have drugs that—for those with reliable access to them—can keep HIV at bay. No one is putting an AIDS quarantine initiative on the ballot like Lyndon LaRouche once did, or advocating branding people with AIDS like William F. Buckley once did. Childhood AIDS in the US is now virtually nonexistent.
Why am I talking about this now, then? Precisely because it’s easy to forget how bad things used to be, even if we were there. And when we forget how bad things used to be, two things happen: First, we get complacent about where we are now. The purpose of knowing our history isn’t to pat ourselves on the back for being wiser than people were back in the day; it’s to remind us to keep checking our assumptions and questioning our fears. They have always gotten humanity into serious trouble.
The second thing that happens is that we lose our faith in the possibility of cultural progress. When state legislators can sponsor a bill prohibiting teachers from mentioning gay people at all—except to “out” a child (this year in Tennessee), or when a young man can be gay-bashed and left for dead in his gay-Mecca neighborhood (this week in West Hollywood), it’s easy to think that we will never, ever get to a place of rational acceptance, let alone equality.
But big change is possible and the history of AIDS in the US is just one example. Of course, people had to fight with the profound knowledge that their lives and those of their loved ones depended on it. And lives still depend on it. This is why, for this year’s Pride, I’m remembering those who fought so hard not so long ago, many of whom are gone now. They would still be fighting today, I know, because there’s so much left to do.
Abby is a civil rights attorney-turned-author. Email Abby Dees