COVID-19 carries echoes of AIDS stigma for the gay community
For members of Michigan's gay and lesbian communities, the COVID-19 crisis arrived with painful and destabilizing reminders of an earlier health panic.
"I feel like I’m watching a movie I saw a long time ago, but the plot feels a little different," said Curtis Lipscomb, executive director of LGBT Detroit. "I’m having flashbacks from my teenage years."
The Detroiter recalls the fear and stigma attached to gay men early in the epidemic, and thinks he sees disturbing parallels today.
"COVID has hit the African-American community like a rocket," he said. "And right now, Detroit feels like the Castro" -- the famous gay neighborhood in San Francisco where AIDS was first concentrated, and which was shunned as a result.
You might think nothing like that's going on with COVID, but according to Lipscomb, you'd be wrong.
"I already see residential stigma," he said. "I hear talk about how ‘We don’t service people in Detroit.’ Some companies have decided not to come inside the city limits. It feels a lot like how gay residents of San Francisco were targeted."
Jon Strand, a Corktown artist with works in the Detroit Institute of Arts collection, sees history repeating itself in the ways people try to reassure themselves that this is a problem happening to somebody else.
He recalls gay Detroiters who maintained, "Oh, only the guys in San Francisco and New York are going to get it." Today, he said, he hears a different sort of denial.
"I'm 72," Strand said, so I am in that high-risk category. But I have friends my age down in Florida who are absolutely flippant about COVID: 'Oh, it's just like the flu, and more people die of that'" -- an assertion recently blown out of the water as COVID deaths in this country passed 100,000.
By contrast, since 1981, HIV-AIDS has killed more than three-quarters of a million Americans. But with AIDS, it took nine years to hit 100,000 dead. With COVID, it happened in months.
To some extent, of course, AIDS was a worry for all Americans, whether they were actually much at risk or not. But COVID has distributed itself far more democratically across demographic lines, even if deaths are disproportionately concentrated in the black and Latino communities.
Joe Kort was a Michigan State University undergraduate in 1981 when the very first report on AIDS appeared in "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report," put out by the National Institutes of Health. The article detailed a surprising cluster of lethal pneumonia cases among otherwise healthy young gay men in San Francisco.
"I’d had a lot of sexual partners when I was at Michigan State," said Kort, now 55 and a Royal Oak psychotherapist. "I don’t mind admitting that. I'm not ashamed at all. But before I got tested for AIDS, I remember thinking I was going to die." (The test came back negative.)
One key difference between the two pandemics, he notes, is that it took years to nail down how AIDS was transmitted, whereas COVID's general contagion routes were identified quickly.
"We didn’t know how AIDS was transmitted for a long time. I don’t remember the year," Kort said, "but on '20/20' when Barbara Walters held that baby with AIDS, I remember thinking: 'What if that baby drools? What if she gets it?'"
He's had much the same gut response lately.
"That’s how I reacted to COVID: 'Do you have it? Am I going to get it from you?'" Kort said. "I was very frightened at first. I feel like I don't want to go to a gym anymore. It's the same anxiety I felt with HIV."
For Barbara Murray, the AIDS Partnership Michigan executive director who retired in 2013, COVID news coverage feels like an eerie blast from the past.
"Every time you turn on the TV," she said, "there’s Anthony Fauci," who as a young doctor at the NIH almost 40 years ago became the public face of the government's response to AIDS.
"I'm very impressed to see him again," Murray added, "but Lord, he's no kid anymore." (Fauci is 79.)
The other similarity between the two pandemics, of course, is what Murray called "the enormous loss -- the enormity of death. And right now," she added, "you can't mourn properly. And you couldn't at the beginning of AIDS either. There were funeral homes that didn't want to have anything to do with you."
Indeed, there was a generalized anxiety at being in physical proximity with gay men in particular.
"The LGBT community was given lessons in social distancing right from the start," said Detroit artist and Between the Lines columnist Charles Alexander. "If you were suspected of being a homosexual, you were kept at a distance by psychiatrists, by the police, by family and church."
Of course, there's one final similarity between AIDS in the 1980s and COVID today.
"Another obvious parallel between the two epidemics is we've had presidents who didn't give a damn," Murray said. "In the 1980s we had Reagan," who didn't utter the word "AIDS" in public for the first six years Americans were dying of the disease, "and now we have Trump."
Having weathered one terrifying pandemic, you can probably forgive survivors for figuring that's something they'd never go through again. Alas, the fates had other ideas.
"The early '80S was about the unknown, the loss of life, poor health, the stigma, the loss of culture – all of that," said Lipscomb. "I was there. I witnessed it -- front row seat. So does this remind me of the bad old days?" He sighed. "Yes."