You don’t know.
You weren’t there.
You don’t know.
You weren’t there.
You didn’t live through it.
Younger gay men hear it sometimes. Older gay men say it or think it sometimes. If you didn’t panic over every sore throat or suspicious blemish, if you didn’t watch your social circle writhe and wither, if you didn’t hold your partner overnight even though he was incontinent and sopping with sweat — well, then, the dangers and lessons of the AIDS crisis will never be real to you.
The generational divide isn’t as simple and chasmic as that, but gay D.C. in 2012 is a very different place than gay D.C. 30 years ago. It’s younger, more populous. More liberated socially, more equal legally. More complacent. In 2012 — with lower stakes, safer sex, better pills and the mainstreaming of pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis — there seems to be no good reason to talk about AIDS.
Let’s talk about it anyway.
In any conversation about the gay community’s attitude toward HIV in 2012, personal proximity to the AIDS crisis arises.
“My concern with the baby gays is they haven’t seen it as a killer,” says Steve Dempsey, 49, an administrator for a District law firm who lived in New York in the late ’80s. The AIDS crisis “informs my life kind of like the Depression or World War II for that generation. It’s like your grandmother who saved all the foil. [My] demographic has all been hit by AIDS in some way. There’s an awareness of it, and a fear.”
Dempsey holds a tall-boy can of beer Friday on the roof of the Rock and Roll Hotel on H Street NE. It’s bear happy hour under gray skies. The roof teems with middle-aged gay men. Brant Miller, 26, winds his way through them.
“You absolutely need them!” says Miller, slapping a packaged condom kit into an older man’s hand, then pivoting to address another. “These are condoms. Take them.”
Miller, an HIV program associate for the LGBT nonprofit D.C. Center, regularly attends gay happy hours to distribute packets that include two condoms, lubrication and safer-sex guidelines. (He was inspired to get into HIV/AIDS work by Tony Kushner’s play-turned-miniseries, “Angels in America.”) He sees firsthand how men of all ages react to his prevention message, and he finds himself thinking the same exasperated thoughts as Ned Weeks, the combative protagonist of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” a play about the early response to AIDS that was first produced when Miller was an infant.
“It’s interesting, the sex shame that we have and Ned’s ideas of shame and pride,” says Miller, pausing by his booth on the noisy roof. “Not the pride of rainbows and marches and crotches. The pride you need to feel comfortable about the sex you have. I mean, grown men giggle when I try to give them condoms.”
‘Nightmare’ for gay community
The only sound in the audience was the scratch of pens on notepads.
Hundreds of men took notes, alert in their seats under the bright lights of the Lisner Auditorium, as one of their peers talked into a microphone about his sex life and his disease — phantom yet fanged, at once elusive and already roaming the bloodstreams of Washingtonians in attendance at the city’s first big public forum on AIDS on April 4, 1983. John H. Willig was 36, a native of Baltimore County, a philosophy major and former friar. On his left calf were the cabernet-colored lesions that indicated AIDS, named mere months before and beginning to ravage gay men in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. At the time, there were an estimated 50 to 100 AIDS cases in the District.