BY John D'Emilio ON December 3, 2014
Every year, without fail, when World AIDS Day comes, my own early memories of the epidemic surface: sitting with my two housemates/friends over breakfast in the summer of ’81 and reading a New York Times article about the first cases of a mysterious new illness; learning from a friend about the first meetings that were happening at Larry Kramer’s place in the Village to discuss what was going on; hearing that Winston, a friend who had seemed fine when I had seen him a couple of months earlier, was dying; going to a huge forum at, I believe, Hunter College, in Manhattan, the first public event I attended about AIDS; the weekly articles in the New York Native, which everyone I knew seemed to be discussing. By 1983, the year I left New York City, it seemed impossible to be in a group of three or more gay men and not discuss AIDS.
Moving to Greensboro, North Carolina that summer was like traveling to another planet, at least insofar as AIDS was concerned. It wasn’t a topic of conversation; no one seemed to know anyone who had AIDS; in fact, to many folks, the acronym itself meant nothing. All that would change of course. Carl Wittman, a key gay liberationist from the Stonewall era, had settled in Durham, and he became sick and died. A former student activist at UNC-Greensboro, where I taught, succumbed. Local health projects began springing up around the state. By the time of the 1987 March on Washington, there was enough organizing around AIDS– and, by extension, much more gay and lesbian visibility – that a sizeable North Carolina contingent was represented at the March that October.
Stonewall, more than any other single event, is remembered and defined as a key break with the past, a turn in the road of U.S. history that leads us to where we are today. The Stonewall Rebellion ushered in something new and different, a liberation movement that boldly embraced a condemned sexuality and whose militant language demanded far-reaching systemic change. But, if I think about the changes that followed in the twelve years from Stonewall to 1981, and then think of the changes that occurred in the twelve years from 1981 to 1993, it seems clear to me that AIDS – or, more accurately, the response to AIDS – generated far deeper and wide-ranging change than one can attribute to Stonewall and the gay liberation era. We can’t “celebrate” AIDS in the way that we celebrate Stonewall, but it deserves to be commemorated and revered not simply because of the lives that were tragically lost, but because of the militancy it aroused, the massive coming outs that it provoked, the organizational impulse that it set in motion, and the way that by the 1990s it made gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender far more visible across the US than they ever had been before.
My bookcase contains quite an array of AIDS-related books, since the epidemic produced writing almost from the beginning. The books include early histories that are awash in controversy, like Randy Shilts’ work, And the Band Played On, and more recent ones that benefit from the distance of time, like my colleague Jennifer Brier’s book, Infectious Ideas. But there is still so much more than the story of AIDS and the response to it can tell us about the last thirty-plus years, from local and individualized stories to global ones, and those stories need to be keep being collected, told, analyzed, and interpreted. One wish I have is that this history will someday be so richly and fully documented that it becomes impossible for histories of the 1980s and 1990s in the US ever to be written again without reference to it.