A Long Way to Go, But a Long Way Come

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A Long Way to Go, But a Long Way Come

Amanda Marcotte

There was every reason in the world for AIDS activists to fail to accomplish anything in the face of so much institutional hostility, and yet they managed to change the world view of Americans in profound ways.

A number of years ago, I read an essay by Martin Amis that he had written long before I even found it, in the mid-eighties, during the height of the AIDS crisis in America. It was a moving, sympathetic piece, as I recall, that lambasted the nation for turning its backs on the victims of the disease. One phrase jumps out in my memory, the "four Hs" that experts then nicknamed the primary victims of the disease: homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs, and heroin users. Considering the increasing power of social conservatism at the time, it was unlikely that advocates for the victims were going to meet much besides resistance from the powers that be, to employ something of an understatement of what happened.

If anyone dared to confront me over my refusal to shed crocodile tears over the death of Ronald Reagan, I reminded them of how he reacted when Bob Hope made this joke at a rededication of the Statue of Liberty: "I just heard that the Statue of Liberty has AIDS but she doesn't know if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Fairy." The Reagans laughed, much to the horror of their French guests President and Mrs. Mitterand. Rock Hudson supposedly had been a friend of Reagan's, but the stigma of AIDS overrode any petty concerns like loyalty, apparently.

I bring this up because World AIDS Day was Saturday, and while it's important to remember that we have a long way to go in fighting this terrible disease, sexual health advocates should also take a moment to appreciate how far they've come. There was every reason in the world for AIDS activists to fail to accomplish anything in the face of so much institutional hostility, and yet they managed to change the worldview of Americans in profound ways.

I was 7 years old in 1984, the perfect age to remember both the AIDS crisis — i.e. the sense that this was a new thing, the panic and the terror — and still manage to not really remember a time when there was no such thing as AIDS. Over the course of my life, many things have changed significantly due to AIDS activism. When I was a kid, the very idea of condom ads on television caused no end of Sturm und Drang of the pearl-clutching variety. It wasn't until I was in junior high school or perhaps early high school that TV networks finally began to tune out the homophobic right wing nuts a bit and allow condom ads on TV. I do remember the first appearing on MTV, and so far, the number of kids from my generation that self-immolated from the lust provoked by hearing the once-ubiquitous "TROJAN MAN" theme songs stands at a big, fat 0.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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No one I knew in high school has died of AIDS, either, at least that I know of, and that sounds like a small thing now, which is just another reason to send a fruitcake to your friendly neighborhood AIDS activist in thanks. Growing up in the shadow of the AIDS crisis meant it was touch and go for awhile on whether or not the disease would spread so far so rapidly that it would become almost impossible to avoid. It's not as if there isn't precedence for the widespread societal disarray caused by deadly STDs. For one thing, you have Africa in the here and now. Or look at the way that syphilis quietly but effectively ransacked Europe for hundreds of years. In America, we saw entire cities become swamped with the crisis, and throughout my high school years, the fear that this disease would not be contained was hardly a paranoid thought.

But my generation had Salt-N-Pepa talking about sex. We were told to practice wrapping condoms on bananas. We were given goody bags full of bewildering latex products from Planned Parenthood. (First time I got a bag of condoms from Planned Parenthood, it had finger condoms in it, which I confess were mostly used as party props, though the real condoms were put to more traditional uses.) We had "Left Eye" Lopez wearing a condom over her eye in videos. A lot of the popularization of condom use from the time makes us cringe at how silly or earnest it was, but I dare say it worked. How many lives have been saved because of it? Had the disease spread unchecked by the use of latex (which was more haphazard than it should have been, but still better than it could have been), I'm guessing we'd be facing down potentially millions more lost than we have.

The very human face of the AIDS crisis was largely a gay male one, especially back in my youth. (Now the "four Hs" nickname has fallen out of the times, since straight women, especially straight black women, are one of the fastest growing afflicted demographics.) In the process of fighting AIDS, fighting homophobia came along for the ride. Again, considering the nearly insurmountable odds AIDS activists faced, the amount of progress on this issue is remarkable.

I recall when the movie "Philadelphia" came out, it was a surprising smash in our small, mainly conservative West Texas town, and stayed at the local theater for weeks longer than most movies did. Like the good small town folk we were, we spent a lot of time hanging out at the hair salon, and one of the hair dressers was a smashingly hot gay man that was, sadly, dying of a rapidly growing brain tumor at the time. We got to talking about the movie and he said, with a mix of genuine astonishment and ruefulness, "Who would have thought that a movie about a dying gay man would be such a hit in this town?"

But by then the door had opened some, and people were slowly facing up to prejudices that had gone long unquestioned. We have a long way to go, but if in 1993, a movie like "Philadelphia" was not only not a threat to the movie owner's small town business, but a boon to it, we had some real evidence of how far we'd already come.