We Survived AIDS, We Can Survive This: Why You Should Listen to Your Gay Elders

If you need support in uncertain times, talk to one of us. We practically wrote the survival handbook.

Pictured above: Gay couple weep at an AIDS vigil, 1994.

When it was announced that Rock Hudson had AIDS on July 25, 1985, a young woman at the summer stock theater where I worked ran through a group of her fellow actors, singing: “Rock is dead,” from The Who song “Long Live Rock.” She laughed joyously, and many others joined her.

Hudson passed away from AIDS-related complications on October 2 that same year. He was 59 years old.

I was 21 that summer, and though it’s hard for me to remember the specifics of how homophobia spread across the country, I do remember clearly how Hudson was greeted with suspicion, prejudice, fear, panic, hatred, and lots of cruel jokes. While Ronald Reagan would ignore the disease, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina opted for grade-A homophobia, saying on the Senate floor in 1987 that “there is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced to sodomy.”

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Rock Hudson, 1960.

Helms further solidified his hatred in 1995, when he said that AIDS victims contracted the disease through “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.” Compassion, unlike the current pandemic, was taboo and on the sidelines—people only cared in the shadows.

That ominous July day came to mind when I heard the news that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson announced they had tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19) on March 11. While I do recall reading sympathy and well-wishes from the public in response, if there were any unkind words or happy death jokes, they were minimal enough to avoid my social media universe.

Though the treatment of Asian people in the U.S. is becoming increasingly worrisome, COVID-19 isn’t targeting an already-marginalized group as AIDS had, one with almost no media visibility, political representation, rights, or mainstream acceptance.

Percentage-wise, it’s not killing most of its victims, who, in the case of AIDS, died the way they lived: hidden from public view. Since transmission of coronavirus doesn’t involve a heavy dose of gay intercourse, the means of infection can be discussed openly—in schools, among friends, with your mother on the phone. It’s a PG-13 virus, not an NC-17 sickness. Feel free to wear your compassion on your sleeve. No one will beat you up in an alley for having visited a nightclub where the damned have danced.

So, if you’re panicking right now about toilet paper shortages, limited Netflix options, and that permanent beer bust hold, I feel your pain. If you’re terrified about losing your job and all your stock market money, I’m right there with you. If you’re feeling like it’s the end of the world, I’ve got news for you: Older gays have already lived through the apocalypse and have come out the other side. Our pandemic engulfed the entire queer universe in flames, killed off our chosen families and loved ones, and decimated the communities some had already died to help build. On the upside, we’re strong as fuck from the holocaust storm.

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ACT UP protest, 1990.

They say that intelligence is the ability to adapt, and adapt we did. Despite our dire situation, and news that got bleaker by the day, our little pockets of life managed to laugh, to find joy in little things, to celebrate existence, to create art, to fall in love. We planned for a future that hung just out of reach, like that rope you couldn’t quite grasp yet to pull you out of the well. But we knew it was there, and we jumped ever higher until we made it out intact.

Gays my age and older, those of us left, have built up immunities to crises; we’re equipped for any emergency thrown our way. If you need support in uncertain times, and want to know how to cope when the surreal takes hold, talk to one of us. We practically wrote the survival handbook.

The year Rock Hudson died, I had my first boyfriend, an actor from New York who was 27. I moved in with him to Chelsea, and what should have been a splendiferous time of my life was marred by the terror of sex and the unknown. My first love was actually my first death threat. Could I trust him? Could he trust me? Was either one of us infected (or both)? Would our first anniversary be our last year on earth?

The night he told me about the affair he’d had made my fingers numb with fear, and that terror stayed with me for a good five years until my first HIV test results came out negative (back when AIDS was considered a death sentence, it was common for men to put off getting test results). This was long after we’d broken up, long after I realized I was living in a military zone. He moved to Boston and soon disappeared from my radar. While I’d always feared the worst, the outside world didn’t give a damn.

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Gay men mourn at Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco, 1989.

I’d come to New York to be an actor and to live among other gay men, to live in a world where love was open, sex wasn’t a sin, and I wouldn’t be considered a second-class citizen. I ended up in a city where skeletons roamed the streets, where jerking off across the room from a lover became the new normal.

While many people have said you can’t compare AIDS with coronavirus for a variety of reasons (the financial implications, the number of people affected, the need for social distancing), the global aspect is apt as hell on a psychological and societal level. With the incredible progress the queer community has made over the past 20 years, it’s easy to forget that, back in the early ‘80s, when AIDS first became news, openly gay men lived, for the most part, in little pockets of the country: Miami Beach, San Francisco, West Hollywood, Greenwich Village, and isolated blocks in most other big cities.

When the “gay cancer” hit our communities went on lockdown. People complained about the government’s lack of action or concern, but no one outside the bubble gave a damn. Condoms were thrown about like Clorox wipes, but TV and movies still showed heterosexual sex in abundance, straight weddings went on unscathed, people had babies and snorted cocaine and sang the praises of the Reagan era. America was on the verge of becoming great again back then, too, provided you didn’t look too closely at the fine print, which was signed in tainted blood of gay men.

In little pockets of the country, we were checking our temperatures daily, looking diligently for rashes, lying about any colds for fear we’d become social outcasts—would we be reported, rounded up?—and making a list of anyone we’d so much as made out with. “You’ve slept with everyone your partner has slept with” became everyday jargon, and in small worlds where pretty much everybody already knew your name, it was one big petri-dish-filled slumber party.

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AIDS vigil, 1998.

Gyms and bars were the closest equivalents we had to social media, Grindr, and dating apps, and we had to practice “sexual distancing.” Unless you had a death wish or were convinced everyone was going to get sick and die—and some did believe that—you approached every potential date with extreme caution. Since your first gay kiss might lead to your last breath, men over 30 were suspect, guys over 40 were avoided without question. They were the ones on the Titanic who’d missed the lifeboats and were now just waiting to drown.

After you caught someone’s eye and made sure he didn’t look too seedy, you had to figure out what you and your partner could do in bed (kiss) and what you couldn’t do (depending on what you read, everything might be off-limits). Your social life after that consisted of a lot of club dates mixed in with funerals, scratching names off your datebook, and praying for a cure. Longtime Companion wasn’t just the title of a tragic movie, it was a soon-to-be-defunct phrase.

Our world was in darkness, incurable black, and our mayors, our governors, our presidents, weren’t going to save us, and they wouldn’t suffer repercussions for botching the job. Because AIDS didn’t happen in broad daylight, because there weren’t 24-hour news updates, because strangers on the street six-feet away were not our friends, the experience became all the more personal, all the more our own—to heal, to endure, to fix, to live. To breathe.

So if I wake up tomorrow with a sore throat and a temperature, I’ll be royally bummed out and take proper precautions. But I won’t fall into despair. I know it’s not the end of my world.

David Toussaint is the author of four books and has been a professional journalist since the age of 15.
@DRToussaint