The playwright Terrence McNally died from coronavirus on March 24. When I was an actor, I had a small part in the Broadway revival of his farce, The Ritz, and got to know him and his wonderful husband, Tom. His death was an awful shock.
But the veracity of his obituary also struck me. McNally was one of the great chroniclers of gay life in the age of AIDS — and yet, during that time, obits wouldn’t dare mention it as the cause of death. You had to translate the writeups: So and so died after a “long illness.” Being survived by one’s parents and siblings was a tell-tale sign. Today there’s a whole section of the New York Times — “Those We’ve Lost to the Coronavirus” — to put vivid faces on the awful numbers.
Are there similarities between our current pandemic and the peak of the AIDS crisis? Yes and no. Mostly, I’m grateful that Covid-19 is nothing like the HIV I’ve been living with since 1994. AIDS at that time was always fatal, slowly killing its victims with an array of obscure, gruesome maladies. And while it took researchers almost two decades to come up with a successful treatment for HIV, we may have good treatments and even a coronavirus vaccine much, much sooner. I’m distraught that government inaction will once more condemn thousands and thousands to death, but I’m relieved the dead this time likely won’t number in the millions.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Tony Fauci, who’s somehow still running the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases all these years later. Seeing him on TV day after day is a bit of a time warp. Now, of course, the whole country is tuning in and paying attention. In 1990, I doubt most Americans knew what NIAID and the NIH and the CDC were — poor feds who showed up on the news being harassed by those angry perverts. Today we all know what these agencies do. And we wish Fauci could take over the whole government.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the scapegoating in Washington. Ugly homophobia exacerbated the AIDS crisis, along with the murderous indifference of the Oval Office. Our president this time around has brought his own brand of vicious bigotry. It’s disgusting that President Ronald Reagan couldn’t utter the word AIDS, but imagine if he’d marked up his speeches “HOMOSEXUAL VIRUS,” the way President Donald Trump scrawls “CHINESE VIRUS” over his prepared remarks.
Asian friends tell me they occasionally encounter hostile stares, and there have been sporadic reports of outright assaults. But the upside of the disease striking every corner of the planet more or less simultaneously (if there is an upside) is that our fear can assume no set profile. The jogger whizzing past you on the sidewalk, the doorman in your lobby, the teenagers ringing up your groceries —young or old, straight or queer, black, brown, or pink, they all come bearing death.
Social distance is our only defense, and we embrace it with eager melancholy. We’re instructed to wear face masks in public — even if they only serve to remind us we are infected and infectious — and we oblige. And while it may work to flatten the curve, the lockdown only feeds our paranoia. And that’s very ’90s. Back then our only protection was safer sex; your peace of mind rested on things as unreliable as latex condoms and human nature.
Anxiety and despair were decidedly private affairs. Stamped in shame — our deviancy was killing us, after all — we bore our terror in secret. Many of us had trouble talking about condoms even with each other. Waiting years and years for the sword to drop, we worked out constantly, fashioning armor out of muscles. In the Covid-19 era, we perform our paranoia. From the snug safety of our apartments, we giddily share about our sheltering diets, our body-weight workouts, our teleconferenced family sing-alongs. In social media, we parade our isolation for laughs.
But despite all the forced merriment, we’re all cowering under a dark cloud of viral panic not that different from what we gay folks lived with year after year. Everyone gets to share the anxiety of transmission, the fear of our inevitable seroconversion. The existential dread when you sneeze or sniffle — is this it? Am I dying now? Try living with that for a decade or more.
Today anyone can test positive, but I shiver when I hear the word, as I do a dozen times a day. A double-positive friend — he’s got the House In Virginia and the Rona — laughed when he told me. A gay co-worker assured him he’d keep his secret, and my friend wondered: Was this just some sort of shame reflex, or was he being judged for slipshod social distancing? Could this new positive help erase the stigma of the other, more secret one? Maybe everyone will finally understand that viruses don’t discriminate.
So, yes. Lots of similarities, lots of differences. As society mobilizes to stop this disease, it’s a bit galling for us AIDS vets, but also gratifying. Our losses made all this unity and action possible. Those of us brave enough to support ACT UP and QueerNation birthed a powerful advocacy movement. It took decades, but ultimately we got life-saving drugs to most of the world and delivered gay marriage in America.
What triumphs await on the far side of this struggle? Universal health care? Economic justice? A Green New Deal? Historians say generals are always fighting the last war. Let’s not take 30 years to win it this time.