World AIDS Day, Noted and Remembered

Memory can be horribly unreliable. A long time ago, back when I used to watch MTV in the early 1990s, I remember hearing on MTV News (or some similar program) that World AIDS Day was observed on December 1, as that was the day in 1981 that the New York Times first published an article on a “strange cancer” afflicting gay men in the city. It turns out that I was wrong on two counts:

  1. The New York Times actually published its famous article, “Rare Cancer Seen In 41 Homosexuals”, several months earlier on July 3, 1981.
  2. The first World AIDS Day was held on December 1, 1988 for strategic reasons: to hold people’s attention after the US Presidential Election of 1988 and before much of the western world commemorated the midwinter holidays, such as Christmas.

Nonetheless, I noted yesterday that today, December 1, is World AIDS Day. I was biking home last night at 11:30 PM, along the East River Waterfront, and noticed that the Empire State Building was illuminated in red.

Seeing the all-red lights atop the Empire State Building reminded me of the day and began a rabbit hole of reading about the AIDS epidemic in its early days. Here are some notable findings:

  • AIDS in New York: A Biography. Back in the summer of 2006, New York Magazine published a list of significant events concerning the emergence of AIDS in New York City. Though it is less a biography than a timeline and is peppered with typographical errors, it is an informative reminder of how the city—and the world at large—struggled to make sense of the disease, particularly in its early days.
  • Timeline of HIV/AIDS. Similar to the New York Magazine timeline, Wikipedia has a more comprehensive list of events as it covers developments throughout the world outside of New York City. It also cites some other great sources.
  • “The man who transformed how The New York Times covers the gay community”. Journalism professor Samuel Freedman recounts how working with Jeff Schmalz, a New York Times editor, both endured the disease and the silent homophobia of the New York Times newsroom in the 1980s to ultimately change the way the venerable paper covered AIDS and gays.
  • “Getting Closer to a Cure, Perhaps”. And just in time for World AIDS Day, HBO will be premiering an episode of the VICE News series on recent, promising developments in finding a cure for HIV and AIDS. As a grumpy old man, I have a distrust of VICE, not of their journalistic accuracy, but of their opportunism…perhaps. As Media Life‘s Louisa Ada Seltzer notes, airing the program tonight “could boost viewership tonight, at a time when the Vice media group is eager for extra exposure…. Vice aims to launch [a] new channel early next year.”

Although it still afflicts millions of people, many of whom don’t have access to live-saving treatments, it’s remarkable how our collective understanding of AIDS has changed. Looking through the timeline reminded me of how overmatched we were by the disease: we had no idea how to medically treat the disease nor how to socially treat its early sufferers, particularly the alliteratively named populations of homosexual men, Haitians, and hemophiliacs.

It’s remarkable to see how we have basically eradicated the imminent death sentence that an HIV diagnosis was a generation ago. In the mid-1980s, we would have given anything to get where we are today, where we didn’t have to helplessly watch its sufferers waste and die. Or, at least, that’s how I remember it.

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