Twenty-five years ago, the first official medical report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of a mysterious sickness afflicting gay men—AIDS—was published. While we certainly know more about the virus now than we did in 1986, the search for a vaccine for this deadly disease has been disappointing and researchers say that many of the vaccines that are currently being tested are unlikely to protect fully from infection. Today, an estimated 38.6 million people are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, around the world. Gregg Bordowitz, an artist, writer, and activist, has spent much of his time trying to capture the AIDS crisis, both globally and in his own life, through video, art, and writing. Here, Bordowitz looks at the early days of the AIDS crisis and how he first came to understand it:
None of my friends knew much about AIDS in 1986. I was still living in a mostly straight-identified scene, and AIDS was a remote concern. But then the reports about the AIDS crisis that began to dominate the news captured my attention, probably because I realized that I could have become exposed to HIV from sex with any number of men—some friends, some acquaintances, some strangers. Even among my few homosexual friends there was much confusion, misinformation, and denial when it came to safe sex. The public sex culture of gay life that had achieved visibility and legitimacy through the sexual revolution was being driven underground by homophobia. In the mid-eighties, mandatory testing and quarantine were discussed at very high levels of the Reagan administration.
Underlying all this confusion was the fear that one could test positive and die a horrible death very quickly. This fear, magnified by all the attention AIDS was getting in the news, drove me to seek advise and information. The only hospitable place to go was the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center on Thirteenth Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. I became acquainted with the center through my work protesting the 1986 Supreme Court ruling (Bowers v. Hardwick) that upheld state sodomy laws. Harwick reinvigorated the gay-rights movement, as hundreds of people turned out for marches and demonstrations in New York. I videotaped these protests—my fledgling efforts as an activist documentarian. This activity led me to form more friendships with gay men and lesbians.
The community center was a somewhat run-down old building four or five stories high. In the warm weather, there were always people hanging out outside, smoking and talking. The inside badly needed a paint job. The stained surfaces of the walls were peeling. It was a labyrinth of different-sized rooms, rooms within rooms, a couple of staircases. For me, it all added to the allure of the place. Clearly the imperative to provide shelter for gay men and lesbians, to foster an affirming culture, was more important that appearances. A sign on an easel just inside the main entrance listed dozens of meetings, consciousness-raising and discussion groups of all kinds concerning communities within the larger community—leather men, men of all colors together, the Salsa Soul Sisters, Alcoholics Anonymous, poetry readings, and so on.
The Community Health Project was on the second floor. Climbing the red staircase put me in mind of fire drills at my elementary school. At the CHP, I was given a free examination and much-needed sex education, all dispensed without judgment. The health care workers on staff didn’t know me, but I could tell they’d helped many people like me. The experience was profound, a revelation: community is the space claimed and defended by people who need one another. On the steps of the center that day, I decide to become a citizen of the gay community, and I vowed to make a contribution to it.