LA DOLCE MUSTO

COVID vs. AIDS: A Tale of Two Plagues

When it comes to public health, haters and liars are nothing new

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Having now experienced two—count ’em, two—plagues botched by Republican leadership, I can assure you that while the situations are dramatically different, the parallels are so striking that it’s basically déjà vu all over again.

Let’s start with the differences. AIDS is harder to get, requiring an intimate exchange of bodily fluids, although you can contract COVID just by shopping or getting in an elevator. But if you had contracted AIDS when it surfaced in the U.S. in the early ’80s, it was a surefire death sentence and a much scarier predicament than COVID has been for much of the populace, especially since vaccines came into play. What’s more, AIDS in the U.S. initially mostly attacked gay men and IV drug users (and hemophiliacs), a fact that stirred evangelical cries of “You deserve it, sinner!” and forced the queer community and its allies to fight for survival via organizing, fundraising, and activism, as the rest of the world gave nothing but a side-eye. The fact that Blacks and Latinos were being disproportionately affected by AIDS hardly made it more attention-worthy to a mostly white, straight establishment.

In that environment, many people with AIDS wouldn’t have dreamed of coming forward with their condition. In the ’80s, I urged HIV-positive writers Cookie Mueller and James Revson to out themselves for visibility’s sake, but neither saw the point, preferring to suffer in relative silence and avoid further oppression. (Mueller died in 1989 and Revson in ’91.) But today? People line up to spill their COVID test results to strangers on social media. With no apparent stigma and a diminished sense of doom because of the lower mortality rate (particularly if vaccinated and boosted), they’re practically wearing their statuses as badges of honor. And in NYC, you gotta show that vax card to eat at Katz’s Deli or see The Lion King, so you can’t be too coy about having been poked!

AIDS—which was first called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency)—was so stigmatized that onetime matinee idol Rock Hudson sent shock waves through the world in 1985 when he admitted he was sick with the virus. (This revelation was also received as his coming out as gay, another jolt to the People-reading masses.) Suddenly, a beloved icon was the face of this horror, and that galvanized some previously heartless deniers into a semblance of AIDS awareness. But though the actor died a little over two months later, the perception battle was far from won. Even after Rock sadly crumbled, I remember celebrities not only keeping their AIDS diagnoses secret but making sure their subsequent obits would be vague, for fear of “tarnishing” their legacy and their estate. When world-famous designer Perry Ellis died, in May 1986, it was reported to have been the result of viral encephalitis, a spokesman refusing to comment on whether that was AIDS-related, because “Those were Perry’s wishes.”

But the celebrity COVID response has been in direct contrast to all that. On March 12, 2020, just one day after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, Tom Hanks Instagrammed that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had been diagnosed with the virus and were experiencing fatigue, body aches, chills, and a slight fever. Hanks assured us that they were going through all the appropriate safety protocols, and signed off by urging everyone to “Take care of yourselves!” Since Tom Hanks happens to exude credibility for a living, his honesty helped make the coronavirus a reality to millions while squelching the idea that there could be any shame attached to such an admission. But I can’t help thinking it was a far easier move than a celebrity announcing in the ’80s that they had a “gay disease” that produces lesions, severe weight loss, night sweats, pneumocystis pneumonia, swollen lymph glands, dementia, and imminent death.

Instead of doing a Rock Hudson, many cowered in terror back then, and I’ll never forget the sight of gay public figures leaping into opposite-sex relationships, seemingly to throw you off the scent of their sexuality and polish their “brand.” Elton John married a woman in ’84 and Calvin Klein did so in ’86 (not his first time), as savvy eyebrows raised while closet doors slammed shut. Around the same time, a gay editor friend of mine stunned everyone he knew by suddenly moving in with a woman, but she ended up having to nurse him as he died a horrific death from AIDS. Fueling all this personal panic, the media was heavily highlighting Ryan White (a 13-year-old who’d contracted HIV from a blood transfusion), and also babies with AIDS, the undertone being “These are innocent victims” as opposed to “special interest groups” who had allegedly done dirty things.

That kind of bias prevented AIDS from nabbing comprehensive media coverage when it first erupted; there was a deafening amount of conspiratorial silence, which morphed into heavy panic—like the media having a field day wondering if Linda Evans had caught AIDS when she kissed Rock Hudson on a 1985 Dynasty episode. (She hadn’t.) But in 2020, the fact that COVID could hit a wider variety of people (even if seniors are at the highest risk of death) helped it grab big public attention from the start, not to mention that this pandemic arose in the era of the full-bloom Internet/24-7 news cycle. With way more venues for people to connect in than in the ’80s, there was a lot of ever-evolving information available—plus the accompanying misinformation, with online desperados claiming that COVID is a hoax, then amending that to “No, it’s for real—it’s the vaccine that’s a hoax.” (The same folks love reminding us that “It’s Trump’s vaccine!” but then strangely add, “Don’t take it!”) With AIDS, the target crowd believed the facts as we gradually learned them; most important, that you couldn’t get infected from casual contact, and “safer sex” with condoms tended to work. But with COVID, every fact spurs a counterfact, complete with some link that folks can share as proof that “I did my own research!” Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather have scientists and doctors do their own research than some schmendrick with Google.

Marking yet more of a distinction, a COVID test popped up early in the game, but there was no test for HIV until 1985, several hellish years into the crisis. Also, with no vaccine or cure in sight (and, 41 years later, there still isn’t a vax, just prep and remedies), AIDS prompted desperation measures such as experimental treatments abroad and the release of the toxic AZT right here, while the dumbed-down era of COVID has the “Let’s go, Brandon” crowd taking livestock dewormer in lieu of the approved vaccine, then calling those who get vaxxed “sheep.” In fact, Americans on both sides of the safety fence are so emboldened these days that COVID has created warring gangs of shamers. There are the Facebook regulars, who love nothing more than screeching about a cashier they spotted letting their mask drop for a second. And on the other team are the MAGAs, who call anyone who does wear a mask an uninformed loser who’s living in abject fear. It’s a real two-party system!

Similarly, while both plagues spurred angry activism, the types of rights being fought for couldn’t be more opposite. In 1987, Larry Kramer co-founded the activist group ACT UP to demand more urgent attention to AIDS from the government and the media, whereas today’s anti-mask/anti-vax protestors have rallied against mandated solutions to the pandemic, all in the guise of civil rights. It’s quite a symbol for where we are as a country, one where committed government attempts to fix a health crisis are randomly denounced as “Communism” or “Marxism” and challenged or ignored by a big chunk of the population. The “civil rights” defense would be a little more cogent if these people hadn’t voted against real civil rights—for queers, women, people of color—at every turn.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who since 1984 has been the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has the distinction of being under attack during both crises, but for completely antithetical reasons. In 1988, Larry Kramer called Fauci a “murderer” and a “pill-pushing pimp” because he felt Fauci’s responses to AIDS were misguided, slow, and not nearly enough. Jump ahead, and Fauci has gotten death threats from the anti-mask/anti-vax crowd for reacting too much to COVID. A walking punching bag, Fauci just can’t win, though getting lovingly spoofed on SNL by Kate McKinnon has no doubt provided some effective deworming.

Of course, the easy transmissibility of COVID has led to shutdowns and closings and a complete upheaval in the way we live, which is new. Business pretty much went on as usual during the darkest days of AIDS, at least for the lucky ones who were still alive, though with the conservative fear-mongering and finger-pointing that arose, it often felt like decency was in lockdown.

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…

But there are plenty of similarities between the responses to the HIV and COVID crises, which is surprising since you’d assume a virus that doesn’t focus on gays and drug users would not become politicized and stir up hatred and bias. But it has!

In both cases, there were the stab-in-the-dark advisories floating around, posing as authoritative guidance. (For AIDS, it was “Don’t use Poppers” and for COVID, “Suck on a lemon.”) Both diseases also prompted bigotry, AIDS fueling not only homophobia but anti-African sentiment (“It started in Africa” was a popular saying), and COVID amping up anti-Asian hate thanks to Trump’s insistence on calling the virus “the Wuhan flu.”

And, speaking of Trump, in both cases it was the government’s failure that was the most damaging element of the response, since he—like President Ronald Reagan before him—barely did better than the crackpots spreading falsehoods. Reagan’s administration had AIDS blood on its hands from the start. In October 1982, when there were already more than 600 cases, press secretary Larry Speakes responded to a reporter’s query about the virus by making jokes and indulging in gay-panic-style banter. Asked if Reagan was aware of AIDS, Speakes replied, “I don’t have it. Do you?” as the room erupted into laughter. Over 36 million global HIV deaths later, that encounter is more chilling than ever.

Reagan didn’t even bother to publicly address the subject until 1985—not long after Rock Hudson’s admission, tellingly enough. So I guess more than 10,000 U.S. AIDS deaths had made virtually no impact on the White House, not until the costar of Pillow Talk took ill.

Likewise, Trump fell short on COVID, acting as if treating it with the force it deserved would somehow tarnish his administration and distract from his fabulousness. (Ironically, he might very well have won re-election if he’d approached the crisis more seriously.) Trump didn’t exhibit a Reagan-like willful silence on COVID—at least not until he dropped the subject like a hot potato in favor of relentlessly trying to overturn the November 2020 election. But considering how he’d talked endlessly about the pandemic before that and got so much of it wrong, I started wishing he had kept quiet. He kept repeating that COVID was going away (or already had), while demonizing blue states, telling a reporter to take off his mask (the journo refused), and hosting a series of news conferences, which were more like bragging sessions or campaign events. “In 90 days or less, your numbers will be very good,” swore Trump on August 11, 2020, though that November ended up amassing a record-breaking four million cases. As Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, awkwardly adjusted her scarf, Trump boomed his lies, while a misleading “AMERICA LEADS THE WORLD IN TESTING” sign hung behind him. We did not have the most tests per capita—far from it. And Trump was actually urging a reduction in testing, griping, “By having more tests, we have more cases.” That absurdist remark underlined the fact that he was way more concerned with image than with actual health and safety.

In the process, he set the tone for the overall Republican response to COVID, which is even more head-spinning than the one to AIDS, because this time, they appear to be OK with situations that cause their own constituents to get sick, as long as the result prevents President Biden from scoring a win. It wasn’t until this past December that Trump admitted to having gotten a shot. (A booster, which means he’s received three vaxxes.) In another fateful twist, that revelation got booed by his followers, who had bought into all the comforting denialism from the beginning and certainly didn’t want a belated wake-up call. Their jeers were alarming, yet constituted some vague sort of poetic justice for glib-eral observers.

Trump’s underlings didn’t help him advance in the war against COVID either. In February 2020, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)—as notoriously shown in Borat Subsequent Movie-film—where he swore that the pandemic situation was under control, but also assured, “We’re ready for anything!” Yeah, anything except COVID. Trump having appointed Pence the COVID czar in the first place was galling to those who remembered that in 2015, the then Indiana governor moralistically took his time to approve a life-saving needle exchange program for Scott County, where HIV was raging. Pence botched AIDS and COVID!

Trump’s spokespeople were awful, too, like press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who—in the same month as Pence’s CPAC bluff—had the hubris to boast, “We will not see coronavirus come here!” Unlike Larry Speakes, at least McEnany didn’t make a joke about it, especially in October 2020, when she tested positive.

Like HIV, which has produced many strains and types, COVID is mutating into variants, suggesting that it might be here longer than we thought—maybe as long as AIDS! Alas, a lingering symptom from the old days is that one team roots for the other to become a statistic, though this time it’s the liberals flaring up just like the haters did back in the ’80s. When an anti-vaxxer dies of COVID, many libs rejoice, the same way Bible thumpers creepily delighted over AIDS deaths. Cries of “You deserved it” are resonating all over again, when no one is actually deserving of an illness, no matter how many voodoo dolls you consult. But to draw a distinction, the anti-vaxxers can be viewed as stubbornly misinformed and potentially dangerous (they’ve upped the chances for the virus to mutate and spread), while most of those dying of AIDS in the early to mid-’80s were infected before even knowing about the long-incubating virus. And if there had been a vaccine a year into that crisis, I’m quite certain there wouldn’t have been a massive campaign to avoid it because it was “government control.”

Still, it has to be said that some gay liberals did bring up “civil rights” issues when various bathhouses and sex clubs were closed in big cities in the mid-’80s. Debates erupted as to the need to balance public health concerns with civil liberties, which makes me think that today’s anti-lockdown “rights warriors” are not a completely new phenomenon. I also recall sensationalized coverage of “bug chasers”—guys who allegedly wanted to catch AIDS, for whatever tragic reason. But these wannabe suicides were in the vast minority, and even they never thought AIDS was a hoax or that attempts to curb it were utterly bogus.

So it’s all a big mess—different, but the same, each crisis spawning a separate epidemic of deadly propaganda. Since so little is learned from plague to plague, I can only hope that everyone does their best to stay safe, so we’ll all be around to battle the next one. Like the Oscar winner said: Take care of yourselves!  ❖

Michael Musto is best known for his outspoken Village Voice column “La Dolce Musto,” which began in 1984. (With the Voice’s return, he is delighted to be back as a contributor.) He writes a gossip column for Queerty, has penned four books, found himself on the Out100 list of the most influential LGBTQs, and is streaming in docs on Netflix, Hulu, Vice, and Showtime.

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