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AIDS in New York: A Biography

June 5 marks the 25th anniversary of the first medical report on what later became known as AIDS. A quarter-century of epidemiological, political, and cultural transformation.

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1959
In the Belgian Congo, a man visits a Kinshasa clinic suffering from joint pain and fatigue. Some 40 years later, tests of the patient’s blood samples, saved by his doctor, will reveal HIV.

1980
October 31
French-Canadian flight attendant Gaetan Dugas pays his first known visit to New York City bathhouses. All of the city’s early infections would be traced to Dugas, since dubbed “Patient Zero.”

November 1
A young gay man named Nick suffers a seizure and loses consciousness. His boyfriend, Enno Poersch, rushes him to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt, where he’s diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, a disease usually found in cats. “I had no idea it was the beginning of an epidemic,” recalls his doctor, Michael Lange.


New AIDS cases in NYC: 52.
Deaths so far: 15.


1981

January 15
Nick dies. Doctors are puzzled by an outbreak of the rare skin cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma. “We had twenty cases in the city,” recalls Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien. “All used poppers, amyl nitrate. We suspected it could be that.” (Later theories would blame contaminated polio vaccines, other recreational drugs, and even biowarfare.)

May 18
Lawrence Mass, a gay doctor, publishes the first story on the illness in the gay weekly New York Native: disease rumors largely unfounded.

June 5
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports on a cluster of Pneumocystis pneumonia, a deadly pulmonary infection, among gay men in Los Angeles.

July 3
The New York Times’ first headline: RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS.

August 11
Larry Kramer, whose 1978 novel Faggots took gay men to task for loveless promiscuity in pre-AIDS New York, calls a meeting of concerned men in his Village apartment.

September 7
Kramer and two friends put up a banner at the Fire Island dock that says give to gay cancer. They make only $124.

December 21
Time and Newsweek run their first major stories.

December
ABC’s Good Morning America is the first network show to cover the disease, in a nine-minute segment cut down to 150 seconds owing to a report on unrest in Lebanon. Frank Gifford begins by saying, “This is a terrible problem. How come nobody’s paying any attention to it?”


New AIDS cases in NYC: 162.
Deaths so far: 74.


1982

January 12
Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) is founded by six men, including Kramer—but he walks out eight months later, telling the Times, “Everything, everything, is too little, too late. By our silence we have helped murder each other.”

January
“Gay-related immune deficiency” (GRID)
gains currency, though the name becomes obsolete when straight Haitians show up with symptoms in Brooklyn hospitals. (Hemophiliacs would soon join them in the public’s mind as the third H group seen to be at any real risk.)

April 8
GMHC’s fund-raiser at the fun-sleazy dance club Paradise Garage raises $50,000.

July 27
The disease is renamed AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

December 10
Panic over the nation’s blood supply sets in after a baby in California becomes sick following blood transfusions. (A donor is later discovered to have AIDS.)

December
Dr. Arye Rubinstein submits a study to the American Academy of Pediatrics finding evidence of AIDS among five infants in the Bronx. It’s rejected—based on the belief that the disease is confined to gay men.


New AIDS cases in NYC: 543.
AIDS deaths so far: 276.


1983

March 7
Kramer publishes “1,112 and Counting” in the Native. He begins, “If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage and action, gay men may have no future on this earth.”

April 20
Mayor Ed Koch holds his first meeting with gay-community reps, t agreeing to proclaim the last week of April “Aid AIDS Week”—and little else. “Gays did not have a seat at the political table in those days,” recalls longtime activist Bill Dobbs. “And so the anger over the way Koch and others treated us sparked a stunning activist movement.”

April 30
GMHC fund-raiser at Madison Square Garden fills the 17,000-seat arena.


Michael Callen.  

May
Safe sex is born: Activist and writer Michael Callen’s pamphlet, How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, urges condom use. He dies in December 1993.

June 3
Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute in Paris tells colleagues he has isolated the retrovirus that causes AIDS. He calls it LAV (lymphadenopathy-associated virus).

June 13
Tabloid panic: The New York Post’s front page reads L.I. GRANDMA DIED OF AIDS. The next day’s story inspires more fear still: JUNKIE AIDS VICTIM WAS HOUSEKEEPER AT BELLEVUE.

June 18
The state Funeral Directors Association urges members not to embalm AIDS fatalities.

June 20
New York Magazine’s cover story on “AIDS Anxiety” reads, “AIDS victims have been fired from their jobs, driven from their homes, and deserted by their loved ones. Any homosexual or Haitian has become an object of dread . . . ”


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