CHERRY GROVE, N.Y. -- He has his family to think of, the Suffolk County, Long Island, policeman wanted it known as he explained the reasons for carrying rubber gloves in case an arrest had to be made. AIDS is at Cherry Grove, he said, and he was taking no chances of catching it.
Standing on a raised wooden walkway about 100 yards from the Atlantic beachfront that is the tanning ground of this Fire Island summer resort for about 900 homosexuals, the police officer chose a risk-reducing approach that is becoming a common precaution. When 64 gay and lesbian activists were arrested this month in front of the White House for illegally protesting the Reagan administration's AIDS policies, the police, treating no one with kid gloves, wore rubber gloves.
Fair enough. Except that AIDS isn't merely a male homosexual disease. Nor a drug users' disease. Nor an understood disease. Four years ago, when reports of AIDS first appeared, it was linked with Haitians. That talk is no longer heard. Four years from now, the AIDS link with gay or bisexual men may be as forgotten as the Haitian connection. A caller to a New York AIDS crisis hot line phoned to ask whether he should dismiss a Haitian nurse he had hired to take care of his sick mother. Another phoned to say that he had a Haitian cotton couch in the living room and should there be concern about getting AIDS from sitting on it.
That irrationality has passed. But not the panic behind it. The panic comes in waves. Four years ago, the Haitian tourist industry was decimated because Americans avoided the country like the literal plague. Then the bias shifted to gays, a stigmatized group to begin with but far enough on the margins to be hit with another stigma. Cluck-clucking was heard from the self-righteous right that perversion was finally being punished here on earth. AIDS, like hell, had no deliverance.
As long as AIDS was seen as a disease of outcasts, the Reagan administration could ignore it. As it did. Only within the past year, after AIDS was seen to be spreading to the respectable did the epidemic prompt a C. Everett Koop to break ranks as surgeon general and state the obvious, that everyone was involved because everyone was vulnerable. Athletes, entertainers, politicians and priests were dying.
Until lately, the federal government has been unwilling to help. Now it wants only to help a little. It took four years for Ronald Reagan to tell his staff to write an AIDS speech for him. The same administration that believes in lie-detector tests and urine tests now offers the AIDS test. For every ill, a test. Cure the anxiety, not the problem.
Elizabeth Taylor has proven to be a better ally of AIDS patients than Reagan. She said last week in Washington that the nation needs to look at high-risk behavior, not high-risk groups. Homosexual groups have been trying to get that across for the past four years, that the disease is transmitted through sexual contact, not solely sexual orientation. Among drug users, shared needles do the spreading.
This means that nothing is accomplished by blaming gays, addicts or Haitians for causing AIDS when they happened merely to be the earliest ones most vulnerable.
AIDS is forcing everyone to confront his or her sexuality and take risks -- high, low or none -- accordingly. Even personal responsibility is a limited defense. Seemingly safe sex can be practiced with a partner unaware that he or she carries the virus.
What's known about AIDS is that no one is safe from exposure. In Cherry Grove, community members are dying -- most of the 19 deaths over the winter were AIDS-related -- but they are also part of the network associated with the New York Gay Men's Health Crisis Center. It is the nation's largest AIDS social service and education organization. More than 1,700 volunteers are active, up from 1,000 a year ago.
''People are not waiting for the government,'' an official said. ''As much as volunteers give, they get an enormous amount in return. You learn a lot about yourself by being there when someone really needs you.''
Four years ago, responsible gay groups were leaders in trying to alert the public that an epidemic was coming and education was needed. Now that that message has been accepted by the public, such groups as the Gay Men's Health Crisis Center are rallying citizens to resist hysteria. Instead of looking for someone to blame, they are saying, find someone to comfort. The disease is not yet curable, but the panic is.