Death, fear and misinformation on Aids cut to the core of 1980s Big Apple
An exhibitionabout the early years of the Aids crisis reflects a period of despair
The United Nations building in New York lit with the red Aids ribbon in 2001 to highlight the general assembly special session on HIV/Aids. Photograph: Eskinder Debebe/Reuters
In May 1983, the ABC television show 20/20 broadcast a feature on Kenny Ramsauer, a 29-year-old who was in the death throes of a seemingly indefinable disease that was cutting a swathe through New York’s gay community and provoking a simultaneous rise in religious fundamentalism.
Ramsauer’s face was so terribly puffed and his skin so blemished by sores and marks that he became a terrifying and pitiful symbol of the young men who were being felled in staggering numbers by a disease that seemed sadistic in its manifestations. His final televised wish – he had died before the show was even broadcast – was that people might gather in Central Park to remember those who had fallen to the disease.
So in June that year 1,500 people gathered to remember the 600 victims who were known to have died by then, with friends calling out their names. It was the first retaliatory response to the stigma and paranoia caused by the emergence of the Aids epidemic.
Thirty summers later, the fretful atmosphere that characterised the early years of the Aids crisis in New York are recalled in a harrowing exhibition. Aids in New York: The First Five Years, curated by Jean Ashton, chronicles a frantic period of death and fear and misinformation.
When Ramsauer died, then US president Ronald Reagan had yet to acknowledge Aids in any public address and a further year would pass before he would do so. In the cinemas that summer, one of the films that wowed audiences was Risky Business, a darkly funny comedy drama starring Tom Cruise that explores the virtues of high-class – heterosexual – prostitution.
In 1983, MTV, launched just two years earlier, was transforming music consumption, Wall Street was resurgent and street crime was rampant. For all its imperfections, New York was a haven for the gay community which had, after decades of marginalisation, begun to celebrate itself in the one city where, it seemed, anyone could do or be anything.
Then came the illnesses. The first victim died in 1980 but it was understandable that Rick Weilltoff’s death on December 23rd was scarcely noticed when you consider the date: John Lennon had been murdered in the city just two weeks earlier.
Aids had no identifiable name then; it was considered a rare form of cancer that seemed to be afflicting a number of young, gay men for reasons that baffled.
Then the numbers grew exponentially. In July 1982 the term Aids was coined and as rumours and half truths circulated the boroughs, those afflicted were cast out in a manner reminiscent of the polio epidemic 40 years earlier. Assumptions were considered fact: it could be caught through touching or through the very air people breathed. Stories of staff refusing to enter hospital rooms containing Aids patients and of doctors burning their garments became commonplace.
The number of people contracting the disease escalated: hospitals and clinics struggled to cope with the waves of young men who had succumbed to the illness and deteriorated with alarming rapidity. Many had come to live in New York from those American states where homosexuality was taboo. Some had lost touch with their families; many other families learned about their sons’ sexual orientation only when they received the phone call to say they had fallen gravely ill.
“The suffering was compounded because they were rejected by their families,” says Sr Kevin Phillips, who worked in Greenwich Village Hospital, in one audio recording.
Many funeral homes refused to take Aids victims for burial. Parents at a school in Queens held protests when it emerged that a child who had contracted the virus was to attend classes there. One by one, the infamous clubs and New York
bath houses – the Anvil, St Mark’s, Plato’s Retreat – began to close. The creative arts, theatre and fashion were decimated as more and more people fell ill. Members of the gay community found themselves attending several funerals a week.
In the space of a few years, an entire generation of talent and energy disappeared from the city. This was interpreted by the religious and conservative right as divine retribution against sin. Gay bashing was legitimate again. “God made Adam and Eve – not Adam and Steve” was probably the most infamous banner of the era.
The exhibition contains old diaries that detail the sheer bewilderment and photographs that show the stricken in their small East Village apartments, their bedside lockers cluttered with pills and potions that did little to stave off death in those early years. Audio recordings of those who lost friends and the medical staff who tried to treat and comfort them are a testimony to the despair and helplessness of the time.
In the autumn of 1985, Rock Hudson, heart throb of the small screen, died from the illness. Overnight, Aids became a global conversation. By the end of that year, 3,766 people were known to have died from the disease in New York.