Why is it that some turning points—even now—are taboo? I’m referring to the summer of 1996, when the first data came trickling out of the Vancouver AIDS conference about the impact of protease-inhibitor drugs on people living with aids and HIV. I was at a meeting of the Treatment Action Group, the activist remnant of act up, in the West Village. Researchers David Ho and Marty Markowitz were delivering the news of sudden and massive declines in viral levels in the bloodstream after treatment with the new combination therapies. The summer day was ending; the air was sticky; a group of extremely smart, extremely skeptical gay activists crowded around, peppering the doctors with sometimes almost belligerent queries. I sat back and looked at their faces: the barely dreamed-of hope, the beginning of an exhalation of communal breath.
AIDS is still with us. HIV is still here. I write this after just getting my own lab tests back, in a ritual that has been part of my life for a decade. Among poorer and minority New Yorkers, the disease refuses to give ground. AIDS is affirmatively still with us.
But hope began that summer. Plague—in this country, at least—turned into a sickness. There was no cure, but the treatments began to bring so many back to life. The beleaguered gay neighborhoods, reeling from constant, unstoppable, relentless death, took a breather. Skeletons put on flesh. Sores were healed. Cancers abated. At the same time, it felt as if going on was some sort of an insult to those who hadn’t made it. My own response to finding out that the drugs had worked was to sink into a depression. It was guilt at living, I eventually figured out, befuddlement at surviving. We had to learn how to live again—not as a battle, but as a choice.
Not that HIV has disappeared among gay men. In some ways, it’s more present than ever. It is part of the air we breathe, the bodies we build, the love we make, the men we fuck. When I first came out as positive, it seemed like a big deal. Now it’s a bore. “After all, who isn’t?” said the nurse who took my blood last week. He was exaggerating. Plenty of gay men aren’t positive. But those who are live with it in ways our predecessors—the good ones, the dead ones—never dreamed of.
This sense of liberation is surely due to the feeling that the worst has already happened. Among younger gay men, there is even the sense that HIV is not that big a deal, that it can be managed. For others, living with low levels of HIV, HIV has become less a monster than a domesticated animal. For a gruesome few years, we dreamed of this day. It seemed Elysian, incredible, beyond hope. Now, in one of those cruel life lessons, it seems banal.
I remember saying to one of my friends: “We must never forget, if we get out of this, that this was hell.” But we have forgotten, haven’t we? For a majority of gay men under 30, there isn’t even anything to forget. And most of those who remember the real horror aren’t here anymore to rail at our complacency. And to marvel at us for our freedom.
• The AIDS Era: A look at the epidemic that struck at the soul a city.