COVID-19 has radically altered our daily lives. The starkest of these changes are calls from health experts and political leaders to social distance in order to contain the disease’s spread among vulnerable groups, including the elderly and the immunocompromised. This is not the first time a novel disease has demanded that we change our daily behavior and develop new ways to care for our neighbors. The 1918 influenza pandemic is a clear historical parallel. But even more recently, is the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic that swept through American cities during the 1980s and 1990s.
As is the case today, New York City quickly became a national hot spot for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), the spectrum of diseases resulting from HIV infection. Medical professionals identified the first cluster of cases in gay men in 1981. Two years later, cases exploded to over 1,000, and nearly half were fatal, with the majority of deaths and new infections occurring in New York. By the end of 1985, nearly 4,000 New Yorkers had succumbed to AIDS. The epidemic progressed much more slowly than COVID-19, with symptoms sometimes taking years to manifest, but this also allowed those were infected to who spread the virus for long periods of time, unaware of their status.
Unlike the highly contagious coronavirus which can travel through aerosol droplets, HIV spread through direct contact with bodily fluids. AIDS proliferated among intravenous drug users who shared needles, hemophiliacs who depended upon regular blood transfusions, children born to infected mothers, and men who had sex with other men. In New York, like other affected cities, the epicenter of the outbreak was within the stigmatized gay community. This made it easy for political leaders to moralize and ignore the HIV/AIDS epidemic. President Ronald Reagan explicitly forbade Surgeon General C. Everett Koop from publicly addressing AIDS, an order he finally broke in 1986. Dr. Donald C. Francis, an epidemiologist from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) assigned to the AIDS epidemic, was instructed to “look pretty and do as little as possible.”
Facing indifference from state officials and disavowal from homophobic segments of society, gay men in New York City and their allies took it upon themselves to contain the spread and care for members of their community. In January 1982, playwright and gay advocate Larry Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in his apartment alongside journalist Nathan Fain, novelist Edmund White, physician Lawrence Mass, businessman Paul Popham, and lawyer Paul Rapoport. The GMHC called for abrupt changes to gay sociability that resemble contemporary commands to socially distance. For example, when it became clear that AIDS spread through direct personal contact, Mass insisted upon the closure of the public bathhouses and clubs where many gay men congregated.
This was a controversial call. The bathhouses, like bars and nightclubs, had become important nodes of city’s vibrant gay public life. Many gay New Yorkers equated relinquishing public spaces with a return to the proverbial closet. Mass also penned a pamphlet for GMHC calling upon men to limit their number of partners in order to reduce their risk of transmission. The same logic applies to our current orders to self-isolate and avoid unnecessary social contacts. In 1983, Michael Callen, Richard Berkowitz, and Dr. Joseph Sonnabend published their own pamphlet, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic. They advocated for the widespread use of condoms in New York’s gay community to prevent the spread of AIDS. Their calls for prophylaxis mirror the current use of face coverings to curtail the spread of coronavirus.
While men spearheaded the AIDS response in the gay community, women actively contributed to safe sex campaigns to curtail the disease. In 1987, Larry Kramer launched a second organization called the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). ACT UP became famous for its attention-grabbing street demonstrations meant to shock the sluggish government into action. Its Women’s Caucus, comprised of lesbian and feminist allies, focused on promoting safe sex education. In May 1988, they staged a demonstration during a Mets baseball game at Shea Stadium to encourage men to use condoms, holding up banners reading “No Glove/No Love” and “AIDS Kills Women” while passing out condoms.
In addition to adopting behavioral changes, GMHC and ACT UP combatted the AIDS epidemic by developing networks of care within their communities. Since there was no cure or universally accepted treatment for AIDS during the 1980s, this care took the form of ensuring PWAs (persons with AIDS) could obtain necessities and comforts as the disease progressed. These were crucial measures in light of the rampant discrimination against PWAs in the medical, social welfare, and housing systems. GMHC operated a 24-hour AIDS hotline that connected callers to information about the disease and support services. These included professional counseling, assistance in navigating social welfare bureaucracy, and a “buddy system” to watch over the infected through their daily lives. ACT UP also engaged in community care. Its Housing Committee worked to secure safe housing for PWAs. Women were just as important to these community care initiatives as they were to prevention efforts. Lesbians within ACT UP served as buddies and organized blood drives when gay men were prohibited from donating blood.
When staring down a frightening and unprecedented epidemic, gay New Yorkers and allies responded by changing their daily behaviors and securing care for the most vulnerable members of their communities. Their actions offer lessons for today: Healthy people can help curtail the virus’ spread. They can spread the word about best practices for stopping transmission. And they can take care of the sick, the vulnerable, and anyone else who needs the community’s support.
Written by Caitlin Wiesner, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History