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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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To this day, his death enrages me as much as it saddens. By 1987, the FDA had approved use of AZT, the first drug effective in slowing the course of AIDS. It apparently was not on the open market but available by special request when Rick was in the last months of his life. Rick's doctor, it turned out, had not completed the paperwork to get him the AZT.

Rick died on Mother's Day, soon after hosting a huge fireworks display he'd originally planned for his funeral.

I remember Rick saying to me, "I'm the least promiscuous person I know. Why did I get infected when so many of you didn't?" Rick was almost certainly infected before we met, so I couldn't understand why I hadn't been infected by him. Later, I learned a fact still not widely publicized: HIV infection is less likely transmitted by someone already infected than by someone who is still testing negative but in the process of seroconverting. The viral load in the sperm is many times higher during seroconversion than later, when it can disappear. One should never forgo protected sex just because someone has tested negative.

In 1987, the same year Rick died, I moved back to Atlanta to become editor of Creative Loafing for the second time. I was glad to be home but horrified to realize that AIDS here was catching up with Houston. I dreaded watching another group of friends die while surviving friends wandered in the blackness of grief.

Accompanying the surge in deaths was a great deal of denial. Early on, Atlanta's gay bars refused to allow anyone to ruin the fun by dispensing free condoms and information about the disease. The same was true of the Hotlanta River Expo, an enormous annual party that attracted men from all over the country. The principal Hotlanta organizer later became infected and wrote an apology to the gay community before dying.

It was also in 1987 that ACT UP was founded. The activist group's motto directly confronted widespread denial: "Silence = Death." ACT UP was founded in New York City but chapters were created all over the country, including Atlanta. Despite controversy — even among gay people — over its in-your-face tactics, ACT UP did more than any other organization to speed access to drug therapy and make it more affordable. Its demonstrations provided a constructive outlet for those of us whose anger at the government, the medical community and Big Pharma had become uncontainable.

One way the government showed indifference to the suffering of gay men was its resistance to grant Social Security disability payments. My close friend Joe, a flight attendant I came to know through AA, had fought for a year to receive benefits before finally being approved. His first check arrived a month after he died.

Of all my friends, Joe's death had the deepest impact on me. During his first hospitalization, some nurses refused to come into his room, even though it had been well established that the disease was not transmitted by casual contact. When Joe no longer responded to treatment and turned into a skeletal figure, his well-known doctor, who was also his friend, simply abandoned him. He stopped visiting and returning phone calls.

A few years later, it became known that the doctor was HIV-positive himself. He continues to thrive, writing checks to this charity and that political candidate — a pillar of the community in another city where his past hasn't followed him.

Joe had a terrific sense of humor, as did most of my friends, even as he lay dying. Gay people learn to use humor to cope with their marginalization. We handily discard the tragic lens for the comedic one.

One evening, Joe lay in bed while Mary Jane Lubinski, a nun who opened her heart to the Atlanta AIDS community, sat on the edge of his bed. Joe said that he wanted to "let go" of life but didn't know how. Mary Jane held his hand and talked quietly about giving himself permission to die. All three of us were crying.

When she got up to get a glass of water from the kitchen, Joe patted my hand and said, "I know I should die. But the Academy Awards are on tonight. Tell Mary Jane I'm sorry." We snapped on the TV and defied death once again.

Joe's religious family wouldn't visit him. His disease had revealed his homosexuality. He cried often for his mother. As the executor of his tiny estate, I talked to her and Joe's brother several times before and after his death. His brother called me one day to ask that I be sure to put Joe's leather coat aside because he wanted to have it after Joe died. I sent that, the TV he wanted and the money left after I paid for Joe's cremation. I was left with the ashes. At one point, I was in possession of the ashes of three friends.

Joe lived a few weeks after the Academy Awards, with one foot in this world and the other somewhere else. He'd tell me about encounters with other beings who talked to him about dying. He wondered if they were hallucinations or creatures at the threshold of an afterlife. They were, in any case, more loving than his family.

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