As I left the concert hall, weaving past patrons through the lobby with my cello on my back, I overheard some of the reactions to our orchestra’s performance:
“Well that was…different.”
“I didn’t care for that.”
John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 is a tapestry of anger and remembrance, a musical eulogy for his friends who died of AIDS, full of harsh dissonant sounds of strings and abrasive percussion. Perhaps making an audience uncomfortable with this piece was actually a measure of success.
There is a reluctance to confront the truth of the tragedy that occurred during the epidemic: The U.S. government lacked urgency because the virus was predominantly affecting queer people, resulting in delays in research and resources that cost thousands of lives.
As society grapples with the cracks in our systems clearly exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the time to have the difficult conversation that these cracks have always affected marginalized people disproportionately.
The Centers for Disease Control first reported five cases of a rare infection in five previously healthy gay men in 1981. Months later, the New York Times reported a rare cancer found in 41 homosexuals, beginning the slang for the disease, “gay cancer.”
When Congress held its first hearing about devoting funds to AIDS research, Republicans said the virus was a “lifestyle issue.” U.S. Representative William Dannemeyer (R., Calif.), gave a speech, reading graphic details of gay sex acts and argued for a registry and deportations of people with AIDS.
Not until two years after the first reported cases of the virus did Congress devote money specifically for AIDS research and treatment, just $12 million dollars when nearly 2,000 people had died. The first HIV test was approved by the FDA in 1985.
President Reagan did not mention AIDS in an official address until February of 1986, after an estimated 10,000 deaths, delivering his first full address on AIDS in 1987.
The first treatment for HIV would not be approved until 1987. It took nearly two years for federal funding, four years for testing, and six years for a full presidential address and the first medicine.
While scientific advances and epidemiological strategies have certainly developed since the AIDS epidemic, I do not believe one of the most important lessons from the AIDS epidemic has been learned: That being that government is less likely to respond with competency and urgency to crises that predominantly affect marginalized groups.
This is not exclusive to the queer community, but also applied to communities of color.
We have seen lapses in responses in natural disasters, like hurricanes Katrina and Maria, and to infrastructure problems, like the water crisis in Flint and pipeline pollution on Native American land. We have seen differences in responses to the crack cocaine epidemic versus the opioid epidemic.
Today more than 770,000 Americans have died of AIDS, the queer community still carries the tragedy and trauma of the epidemic, and stigmas persist. Several religious leaders have proclaimed coronavirus to be God’s wrath for homosexuality.
New York City has begun mass burial for unaccounted for COVID-19 patients on Hart Island off the coast of the Bronx, the same site that was used to bury people who died of AIDS by the thousands. Those people also died alone in quarantine, one forged by stigma and bigotry.
Those lost to the AIDS epidemic and those living with HIV today deserve respect and truth.
During the early stages of their epidemic, there was no talk of flattening the curve. There was no emergency relief bill. The government failed them and resulted in more graves that had to be dug.
That must never be forgotten.
Lewis Rawlinson is a cellist and actor. He graduated with honors in May from Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of the Performing Arts.