For the Bane and Enlightening of Humankind

Pride & Pandemic Slide
During my freshman year at Boston University in 1982, neither I nor any of my fellow acting majors
had heard of AIDS. I was newly out and proud, but I couldn’t have been more out of touch or
apolitical. I blithely thought at the time that Reagan, with his rouged cheeks and shoeblack hair, was
a fantastic president!

I wasn’t a stranger to pestilence, though. In 12 th grade honors English, we’d studied Camus’ The
Plague. As an angsty teen closest queen, I became a little expert on existentialism, as well as the black
and red deaths. I’d also seen a documentary about the 1918 Spanish flu that horrified me, especially
when I learned that when anyone with influenza was admitted to the hospital, nurses would
immediately place a toe tag on the patient, their death all but certain.

By seventeen, I knew disease could descend and destroy without discrimination and within days. It
was only a matter of time before humanity faced the next outbreak.

I didn’t learn of AIDS until the summer of ’83, when I vaguely heard about some gay disease on the
radio. I was driving the family station wagon to Hollywood, where I took private lessons to eliminate
the nasality from my voice. According to my college acting teacher, I possessed a very lazy soft
palate.

I didn’t think much of “Aides,” as I wrote in my journal, until a year later when I saw a program on
PBS about the disease ravaging the gay community. At the end of that distressing show, there was a
number to call for more information. Without hesitation, I picked up the phone and was put
through to AIDS Project Los Angeles.

The very next evening, I grabbed Mom’s keys and picked up my friend Jode. We trekked to Boys
Town to attend our first of many APLA volunteer meetings, our youthful sense of invincibility
fading like the peeling wood paneling decals along both sides of my green Ford Country Squire. If
you needed to get into the West Hollywood office after hours, the spare key was in back sitting atop
the air conditioning unit. That’s how informal and instantly familial it was then, as kindhearted,
terrified folk banded together to make whatever positive difference they could.

It wouldn’t be long, however, until the word “positive” would take on a whole new and ominous
meaning.

Now at fifty-five, I’ve already lived through my plague. I’ve done the panic, the praying, and the
protests. I’ve attended the fundraisers, and I’ve paid my dues. Yet AIDS is far from over. The
repercussions of HIV still affect me, my husband, and friends; so, no, I wasn’t expecting another
epidemic in my lifetime. I was still dealing with my first one.

Despite my naiveté, I do know the drill of infectious disease well, and the effects of the coronavirus
are the same as I remember:
  •  Experiencing fear, separation, and loss on an exponential scale.
  •  Worrying: Did I get it? Did I give it to someone else?
  •  Seeing doctors, who’ve dedicated their careers to saving lives, suddenly confronted with their
  • impotence in combating a mystifying, merciless disease.
  •  Wondering: Will this ever end? Will I be here for the cure?
  •  Undergoing testing, tracing, and treatment.
  •  Pondering: How do you make meaning out of meaninglessness?

Nearly forty years since AIDS has had a personal impact on me, I’ve found my voice. Neither my
soft palate nor my sensibilities are still lazy. And I’m no longer beguiled or bamboozled by the man
in the White House.

The big lesson I learned from the AIDS epidemic is what I hope a world facing the COVID-19
pandemic comes to appreciate. It’s the same wisdom Anne Frank understood in the face of the
Holocaust and that Dr. Rieux breathtakingly apprehends at the close of Camus’ literary masterpiece:

“…[We] should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those
plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done to them might
endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to
admire in men than to despise.”

Camus’ is not a mixed message; it’s a crucial dual message. For even in our polarized times, we have
the capacity to see both sides and to strike a balance. We must call out the crimes, yes, but also
herald the heroes, both large and small. We must appreciate that, without our health, we have
nothing and accept that taking care of ourselves entails taking care of each other.

Whether it’s wearing a condom or a mask, whether it’s practicing safe sex or social distancing, we
can willingly shoulder any sacrifice done for the common good. Whether it’s finding solutions for
IV drug use, the uninsured, or underlying conditions; whether it’s vanquishing homophobia or
valuing our healthcare and essential workers; we can seize the opportunity to protect everyone,
especially our most vulnerable, and emerge more prepared, more present, more united, and more
compassionate than before.

That’s how you honor the lives lost, mitigate the suffering, and make meaning out of a meaningless
disease.