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AIDS in New York: A Biography


An AIDS patient with Kaposi's sarcoma.  

Billboards by artist Felix Gonzales-Torres go up around the city. His photos, taken shortly after his lover died, depict an empty bed.

July 22
Artist David Wojnarowicz dies.

November 3
Election of Bill Clinton, who’d promised a cabinet-level AIDS czar and a Manhattan Project to find a cure. Neither happened, though once out of office, Clinton would join Nelson Mandela in the global fight against AIDS.

New AIDS cases in NYC: 10,871.
AIDS deaths so far: 38,044.


AIDS quilt in Central Park.  

February 6
Death of tennis star Arthur Ashe, who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion.

Early 1993
West Side Club bathhouse opens a few blocks away from GMHC.

May 4
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America opens on Broadway. Along with its sequel, Perestroika, it’s been canonized as the best piece of theater on the epidemic and perhaps the first whose main character survives the end of the play.

December 23
The film Philadelphia premieres; Tom Hanks goes on to win an Oscar.

New AIDS cases in NYC: 12,661.
Deaths so far: 45,110.


After GMHC debuts its “Young, Hot, and Safe” subway ads, the right strikes back, with the Catholic League unveiling its own campaign: “Want to know a dirty little secret? Condoms don’t save lives.”

August 18
Playboy playmate Rebekka Armstrong announces that she has AIDS on Entertainment Tonight.


January 30
AIDS is now the leading cause of death among all Americans ages 25 to 44, the CDC announces.

March 5
Pernessa Seele, founder of the Harlem-based group Balm in Gilead, launches the first AIDS mobilization in black churches. Six years later, Gilead’s Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, which includes education and an emphasis on compassionate ministry, gets CDC funding to expand nationwide. Now churches across America, the Caribbean, and Africa participate each Lent.

August 9
David Geffen gives $4 million (the biggest solo AIDS donation yet) to GMHC and God’s Love We Deliver, which brings meals to people with AIDS.

December 7
The FDA approves saquinavir, the first in a powerful new class of HIV drugs called protease inhibitors. Soon followed by cousins ritonavir and indinavir, the drugs are hailed as the most promising development in AIDS history.


April 29
Rent, Jonathan Larson’s snapshot of life in the pre-protease-inhibitor East Village, opens on Broadway to huge success.

July 7
At the World AIDS Conference in Vancouver, Dr. David Ho, who pioneered the protease-inhibitor studies that would make him Time’s Man of the Year, announces to a standing-room crowd of fellow researchers, advocates, journalists, and stock analysts that protease inhibitors present “the possibility that HIV will be completely eradicated from the body.” While that hope soon vanishes, the drugs usher in a new era: AIDS as a chronic, manageable illness. Before long, people with advanced AIDS are climbing out of their sickbeds and resuming normal lives, a phenomenon that comes to be known as Lazarus Syndrome. Cover stories hailing the “end” of the epidemic appear in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek.

New AIDS cases in NYC, 1994 to 1996: 33,208.
Deaths so far: 67,049.


May 5
Tabloid super- star Andrew Cunanan—gigolo, drag queen, meth addict, “AIDS revenge” serial killer—stops by the West Side Club on his way to killing Versace and then himself.

September 13
The new Miss America, Kate Shindle, vows to dedicate her term to youth HIV prevention. When schools rein her in, she later tells Poz magazine, “Sometimes I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall.”

November 4
Openly positive Phil Reed elected to City Council from Harlem.


June 3
Feds green-light the first human tests of an AIDS vaccine, including a trial of gay men in New York. Called AIDSVAX, the vaccine is widely viewed as unpromising, but it is safe, and so gets the nod from officials under attack for foot-dragging. Five years and 5,400 earnest volunteers later, AIDSVAX is declared a dud.

June 19
Following tabloid outcry over serial infector Nushawn “The One Man Epidemic” Williams, New York State unexpectedly passes what appears to be one of the nation’s harshest HIV-testing laws, calling for partner notification for everyone who tests positive. AIDS activists’ disbelief turns to relief, though, when legislators later realize the law would not force any person with HIV to name names.

July 7
The Times reports on a strange side effect of some HIV drugs known as lipodystrophy: “While fat disappears from some areas, for unknown reasons it redistributes to build up in others. The back of the neck resembles a buffalo hump. Breasts enlarge. A woman may have to buy a bra that is two sizes larger than the last one.”


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