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AIDS in Atlanta: Reliving the plague years

A survivor of the epidemic looks back on old friends — and worries about the future

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ACT UP protesters march up Mitchell Street toward the State Capitol in 1991. During the AIDS epidemic, the volunteer organization lobbied for better access to health care. - COURTESY JEFF GRAHAM
  • Courtesy Jeff Graham
  • ACT UP protesters march up Mitchell Street toward the State Capitol in 1991. During the AIDS epidemic, the volunteer organization lobbied for better access to health care.

This was the way the world was in the years just before AIDS. To assert gay identity still meant taking on an outlaw status. Yes, the nascent gay pride movement was gathering steam in America's largest cities, but it was only a rumor in places like Augusta. I read everything I could about the movement and, because I visited Atlanta frequently, I got a gluttonous taste of hedonistic gay life. It was all about dancing, drinking, cruising for sex and hooking up, night after night. It sounds naïve now, but in those days, many of us regarded having lots of recreational sex as civil disobedience — rebellion against the oppressive and moralistic dominant culture. We were embracing our oddity.

Rick and I moved to Atlanta, then broke up after five stormy years together. Much of our difficulty resulted from my public persona as editor of the Atlanta Gazette and as a frequent contributor to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Sunday magazine. He felt overshadowed, unable to make a living as a painter. He returned to Augusta and the safety of his well-known family. Angry and hurt, he wouldn't talk to me for several years.

Meanwhile, the first cases of the mysterious illness that would later be named AIDS had emerged. It would be several years before its cause, HIV, was discovered. Researchers found, too, that full-blown AIDS didn't typically develop until 10 years or longer after the original infection. Then it destroyed the immune system, making its victims vulnerable to opportunistic infections that killed rapidly.

Few took the reports seriously at first. After I quit drinking in 1982, I remember sitting in the lobby of the gay AA clubhouse and hearing one joke after another about what was then commonly referred to as "gay cancer": "Do you know what causes AIDS? Track lighting and ficus trees."

As the disease began to mushroom in New York and on the West Coast, a few cases popped up in Atlanta. Gay friends ruminated constantly about the likely cause of the disease. A favorite theory, repeated in the press, blamed kinky sex. Another blamed poppers, the orgasm-enhancing inhalant. These explanations provided a false sense of control: As long as you avoided poppers, bondage and sadomasochistic play, you might be safe.

I moved to Houston in 1985 with my new partner to become a magazine editor, and it was there I first encountered the true devastation of AIDS. I made a lot of friends quickly because I worked in media and I attended AA meetings. In two years, I watched AIDS sweep through that city's gay population.

Ultimately, all but one of my Houston friends died, as would most of my friends in Atlanta in the coming years. There was no cure, no vaccine and no way to manage the disease. And every gay man I knew felt like it was a matter of time before his own skin erupted in lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma or his lungs filled with suffocating Pneumocystis fungus.

With no effective treatment available, many resorted to magical thinking. Houston had a local chapter of followers of Louise Hay, a New Age guru who claimed AIDS could be cured by reciting positive affirmations. When a friend who was a member developed an opportunistic infection and became gravely ill, his group came to the hospital and in no uncertain terms blamed his critical condition on his thoughts. They said they wouldn't visit again until his thinking improved. He survived that bout of illness and his thinking did indeed improve: He became an outspoken critic of Hay's work.

In 1986, Rick called. He wanted to re-establish communication. I visited him in Augusta, and it was a sweet reunion. We were both in mainly unhappy relationships with other men and our hearts rejoined almost instantly. We cooked our favorite recipe from Alice B. Toklas' cookbook and we drove to the grove of mimosa trees where we picnicked soon after meeting. Rick was living in a cozy old house that he explained was provided by an advance on his inheritance. His family was also paying all his expenses. I wondered why. Then he dropped the bomb. He was HIV-positive.

I was devastated. He tried to calm me, but my heart was broken. He sounded hopeful and said all the right things, but I knew he was terrified and angry. At 33, he would soon be dead.

One afternoon the following March, UPS dropped off a large box. It was from Rick. It contained a set of antique glassware we had fought over when we broke up. There was also memorabilia — our fishing licenses, the diamond earring he wore, notes I'd written him, pictures. When I called, panicked, he explained that he was not long from death and was sending people mementoes.

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