Friday, June 07, 2013

AIDS In New York: The First Five Years.

New York's first candlelight march.
The stunning New-York Historical Society Museum's AIDS new exhibit opening today called "AIDS In New York: The First Five Years" caught me completely off guard. I wasn't prepared for the flood of emotions that poured into me as I visited a history I both am, and am not, a part of. During those years, I didn't live in New York. In fact, I was mostly in a car, a van or on a plane playing backwater clubs in a cover/show band, renting studio time here and there for midnight recording session, learning my chops as a musician and getting laid and partying, as musicians do.

This world was mostly a straight world, so I get the news of AIDS second hand. A rumor of a "gay cancer." A rumor that it might be a virus. A rumor that no one knew how it was transmitted. A rumor that it was a punishment purposefully sent by God. 

I have this memory of actually being in New York for a few days during that time, and picking up some paper suggesting that this new disease was nothing more than a plot by Heterosexual America to exterminate us, either through disease or fear. Or just a plot to keep us from getting laid!

In the pre-Internet/cell phone days, one lived alone with one's thoughts. I'm not saying it was better or worse than what we have today, but the point is that I was sheltered off from most of the news as we drove from town to town. (I wrote before how I was in the airport Sheraton in Columbus, Ohio -- when John Lennon was murdered). 

So, this past week, as I found myself unexpectedly at the center of a lot of attention because of that amazing front page (Metro section) New York Times story, as well as the BBC story, one of the persons I came in contact with was Timothy Wroten, the Associate Manager, Communications for a place I'd never heard of: The New-York Historical Society.

The first thing I noticed was, of course, the "dash" between "New" and "York" in the title. New-York?

Either this was the most pretentious "society" trying to look "olde," or it was an institution that had been around for a very long time. How happy I was to find out that the latter is the case. 

When did we lose the dash? I guess I'll have to go back to find out. 

Anna Bressanin and Matthew Danizigo, the producers of the BBC segment from their "Altered States" series tied together my story with this exhibit, which I didn't know what happening, the purpose of which is to recall the "dark ages" of AIDS, back before anyone even knew if it was virus.

And in tying us together, focused on how fear and ignorance lead to death. 

Founded in 1804. We were barely a country back then.

Out front, giving Abe a bit of advice.

My L.A. friend, AIDS educator Michael Sugar, was in town.

Lately, I've been reading a lot of history about New York City, including the superb "Island at the Center of the World," which traces a lot of forgotten or unknown history pre-British. It was the Dutch that set the tone for New York (or New-York) to be the multi-cultural "center of the world" that it is.

Beautiful entrance-way.
The lobby area is both expansive and informative with early pictures of New York personalities and art
plus touch screens that describe each object found on the wall. It's really cool to play with.

Then, we went upstairs. The first thing we came to was this.

Claire Yaffa's iconic photographs take your breath away. The black room where these are set, with the photos all around reminded me a bit of the Holocaust Museum in DC where you enter a black room and the walls and ceiling are covered with every snapshots of all the people who lived in that town. But here, the collection is set off one jolting photo at a time.

This one killed me. This room alone with worth the effort.
Yes, your heart will break. But this time cannot be forgotten. 
 Then, we come to the main exhibit.

A perfect touch: vintage televisions with news casts from that time.

The first time it got described.
I had Pneumocystis carinii pneumonica. It almost killed me.
It formed the basis of the Last Session song, "Save Me A Seat."

Timothy Wroten takes us into the darkest days of AIDS.

On the ropes, with seemingly no one caring remotely about gay people -- the subject was never mentioned except in the most extreme "fags go to hell" language -- or other people with AIDS ("they did it to themselves"), the public's perception needed to be changed, the medical industry needed to be pushed, the politics needed to be changed. Funny thing happens when you're fighting for your life: Everything non-essential fades away.

But at the center of it all, as David France demonstrates in his extraordinary documentary "How To Survive A Plague," is education. The people met to get information. Where did it come from? Why is it attacking us? How is it transmitted? What does it do to you once you get it?

With few people looking, and a president looking the other way, you have to do it yourself.

Finally, funding began.

That vaccine does not exist yet.

I relate to this picture today, all the way down to the Metamucil.
The difference was that his meds didn't work.
But it was still a "somebody we don't know" disease until...

Rock Hudson died.
That's, really, when I was aware of Hollywood kicking in their support for us.
If you don't live in New-York, I hope these photos will give you a hint. I am hearing from young people today in 2013 that they aren't quite sure how you get infected, and even if you do, that's it's no big deal.

The unspoken subtext to all this is that health educators and activists are telling me that the big gay national organizations have abandoned us. When asked what their budget is for AIDS education, the answer is somewhat close to ZERO because -- and I quote, "It's not a gay issue."

Their focus on gay marriage, while tremendously successful and worthy of respect, will end in disaster if, in turning away from HIV, they lose another generation.

The tragedy of the AIDS holocaust is can happen again. All it takes is for the virus to mutate (something it does very well) a wee bit more that way rather than this way, and it can all start over again.

You can't get married if you're dead.

The New-York Historical Society's AIDS in NY: The First Five Years runs beginning today through September 15, 2013. And don't miss Larry Kramer on Wednesday, June 26 at 6:30pm discussing his play The Normal Heart, which documents this early history in blistering detail.

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