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Leaders in the Capitol Hill gay community: Don’t compare COVID-19 response to the AIDS crisis

For more than 30 years, the AIDS Walk has filled Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park

With news outlets buzzing about which celebrities have tested positive for coronavirus, rumors about testing and transmission, as well as a frightening projected death toll, it might be tempting to compare COVID-19 to the initial HIV outbreak in the 1980s, but figures in Capitol Hill’s gay community say, just don’t.

Fred Swanson, Executive Director of Gay City, was unequivocal about the main difference: “With HIV no one cared. It was a joke to the president. It was affecting a community that was hated and reviled, and no one cared about. [We had to] care for ourselves. Nobody else was interested in caring for us. That’s a critical difference now where you have mobilization of local, state, and federal government officials and public spokespeople really advocating for people to implement social distancing, or get testing widely available,” Swanson said.

Swanson witnessed the onset of the HIV epidemic as a young person in the American South. Although his experience wasn’t centered in a big city, the epidemic nearly wiped out a generation of gay men. “We lived through the devastation of funerals,” Swanson said. “People dying. Every week a different funeral.”

HIV/AIDS advocate and speaker Mark S. King wrote, “Tens of thousands of people died of AIDS-related complications before our government began to address it. Many, many, many of those people spent their last breaths in the center of protests in the streets, begging for justice and relief. Their ashes were dumped on the White House lawn.”

Brian Minalga, a project manager in the Office of HIV/AIDS Network Coordination at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, cautioned that any parallels made between COVID-19 and HIV should be trauma-informed.

“In the 80s and 90s we were literally fighting for our lives,” Minalga said. “This has created a deep trauma that lasts for generations. When we hear these comparisons to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, it’s a reminder of how expendable our lives were at that time, and still are now.”

At its height in the mid 1990s, AIDS killed around 50,000 people a year in the United States and had become the leading cause of death among all Americans ages 25 to 44.

The AIDS Memorial Pathway is planned to open at the Capitol Hill Station plaza later this year but construction delays could push the project back. You can learn more at theamp.org

Minalga did offer one comparison: coronavirus follows “the path of social inequity the same way that HIV follows the path of social inequity.” The most vulnerable people in our society bear the greatest burden of an epidemic: people who are chronically underhoused, drug users, immunocompromised people, and people of color.

Comparing COVID-19 to HIV can be painful and problematic, especially for those whose communities were most devastated by HIV. For those individuals, there were no regular presidential briefings, stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, or mobilization around rent freezes. Add to that the fact that we’re still in the midst of the HIV epidemic. Minalga said, “We still have 40,000 people contract HIV every year in the United States, and most of those 40,000 are the people that our society doesn’t value.”


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9 thoughts on “Leaders in the Capitol Hill gay community: Don’t compare COVID-19 response to the AIDS crisis

  1. I seem to recall in the 80s began massive investment in AIDS research and a search for a cure. I can’t remember the exact statistic, but at the time something like 25% of all federal government (ie, taxpayer) funding for medical research went to HIV/AIDS. That was during Reagan’s second term.

    During GW Bush’s first term, he pushed Congress for $15 Billion dollars to fight AIDS in Africa.

    To say that nobody cared then or now just isn’t true. Most people cared, and vast resources were applied to help those afflicted.

    • Here’s another great point— Reagan didn’t even utter the word “AIDS” until 4 years after the emergence of it.

      Did you have friends dying every week? Did you have friends that literally would die overnight from pneumonia, who seemed totally fine the day before? If you did, you’d remember it differently. Don’t tell us not to say “nobody cared”. We remember, we lived it.

      • It took years after the disease emerged or people to agree what to call it.

        Gay or straight, everyone in the arts community in those days lost loved ones, including Reagan. If his administration didn’t take the best of best courses as AIDS emerged–well, neither did the gay community itself.

      • Bullshit. If it weren’t for the gay community doing as much as it did to take care of itself, things would have been a lot worse. Groups like ACTUP had to stage appalling demonstrations and die-ins just to call attention to the government’s indifference. There’s no excise for a President having not a word to say about a health crisis like that until 4 yrs later. And yes there were a lot of allies in the arts and other communities that did care (yes, even W seemed to care more than Reagan), but there was a helluva lot of indifference from other areas, including the “It’s God’s punishment” types that continues to this day. But you go ahead with your revisionist history. Blaming makes rationalizing so much easier.

  2. I don’t know whether Swanson’s cynical or really doesn’t remember. In the early days of AIDS, a significant portion of the gay community was vociferously against common sense measures like closing down the bathhouses and — in some cases — even safe sex.

    • True. Gay activists who are outspoken about safety measures such as closing down the bathhouses were vilified by many. I also remember the conspiracy theory that AIDS was created by the government to kill blacks and gays. It wasn’t overly common to hear prominent gay leaders proclaim this but it was extremely common for very prominent and powerful and respected black leaders to make this claim. And never once have I heard anybody attribute the high rates of AIDS in the black community to the fact many community leaders encouraged blacks to just see it as a conspiracy against them that they were powerless to do anything about so the common reaction was passivity. Gays activists were far more outspoken about encouraging people to be proactive.

  3. For me, personally, there is a big difference between the two. In the 80s I was able to help support people with HIV because I was not afraid of contracting the virus myself. You knew what to do to protect yourself once the modes of transmission were understood. With this virus, I’m in a risk group and have to stay home to protect myself and other people. This makes me feel sad.
    Also, with HIV, you didn’t have to die alone unless you wanted to. Being with a dying friend is one of my greatest life privileges. With HIV, that was possible. With covid-19, it’s mostly not possible.

  4. “Also, with HIV, you didn’t have to die alone unless you wanted to…”

    The bar I went to was home for a lot of men who’d fled the boonies for the city. Many weren’t sophisticated, talented, confident, or any of the other things that attract friends or lovers in the community–or not attractive enough to overcome those shortcomings. Many of them sickened and eventually disappeared.

    They weren’t warmly received by the community. I always wondered if they’d died alone.

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