Before COVID-19, LGBTQ community faced AIDS crisis

Once again, LGBTQ people find ourselves sequestered in a parallel history, an alternate temporality unshared by the rest of the American public. Was the surgeon general not alive during the AIDS crisis? Were “most Americans” living on some other planet just 25 years ago? Axios reports the following:

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on Fox News Sunday that the next week will be ‘the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives’ — calling it our ‘our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment’ — as the projected death toll from the coronavirus pandemic surges.”

I have great sympathy for all who have lost a loved one to COVID-19 — indeed, sympathy doubled by remembering the people dear to me whom I lost to AIDS, most of them under the age of 40. But I have no patience for the amnesia that erases the grief and trauma queer people carry with us from the last pandemic.

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AIDS Crisis

A visitor attends “Life and Death in Black and White: AIDS Direct Action in San Francisco, 1985–1990,” an exhibition that was displayed at the GLBT Historical Society Museum in 2012. Photo: Gerard Koskovich

A brilliant speech given in 1988 by AIDS activist Vito Russo (1946–1990) comes immediately to mind for me:

“Living with AIDS is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices. It isn’t happening to them.”

The echo of those explosions — and the pain of experiencing them while the vast majority of the United States looked the other way — is replicated and reinforced every time the memory of the AIDS crisis is carelessly or willfully excluded from public discourse.

It’s up to LGBTQ people and our allies to insist that our history — and the history of those who did nothing to help us or who outright attacked us in our darkest hour — be remembered and taken into account.

Indeed, we might even be called upon for our wisdom: We are people with personal experience of coping with the fear, anxiety, uncertainty, mass loss, difficult changes and overwhelming grief that come with directly facing a pandemic. We have something invaluable to offer “most Americans” if this time, they would only bother to notice.

About the author

Gerard Koskovich

Gerard Koskovich is a queer public historian based in San Francisco and Paris. Follow his history posts on Instagram at @gkoskovich.

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