The 1980s AIDS crisis as a Forecast of Baby Boomer Amnesia

Monday, January 25, 2016

PART V: The 1980s AIDS crisis as a Forecast of Baby Boomer Amnesia

I have been reading Queers in Space: Communities/Public Places/Sites of Resistance (Seattle, Washington: Bay Press; 1997) the past few days, and in particular want to recommend Ty Geltmaker’s chapter, “The Queer Nation Acts Up: Health Care, Politics, and Sexual Diversity in the County of Angels, 1990-92.” The years cited in the title are slightly deceptive, since Geltmaker does an excellent job at compressing the sordid history of how little effort was made by elected politicians in Los Angeles to deliver even a minimal level of health care to those subjected to the ravages of HIV. In reading his article, I was struck by how vividly he made the first full decade of the epidemic come back in memory, and I was also struck by a contemporary disparity in awareness of how the pandemic altered the development of Gay consciousness.

In fact, I often wonder how much knowledge young people (those born after 1990) have of the AIDS crisis. What percentage of them know how many tens of thousands of people in the United States died from the debilitating onslaught of HIV between 1980 and 2000? How many died in Africa? In Europe? In Asia? In Latin America? And it’s just the millennials that I suspect of wearing hip-boots of ignorance as they wade through that roll-call. At this point, I am not even certain that most baby boomers are cognizant of the enormous number of deaths exacted in the aftermath of officially sanctioned neglect of AIDS patients. It is all too easy at this point to imagine that life has become “normal” again in the United States; in fact, with the majority approval of gay marriage, it would seem that the nightmare of AIDS, at least in the United States, can be said to be rapidly receding as a tragedy that will mainly stay present as a dramatic element of novels and poems and the occasional screenplay.

What needs to be asked, though, for those who want to press the issue of the single-payer system, however, is to demand a thorough analytical report of how the crisis would have been handled, had a single-payer system been in place in 1980. That difference will tell us how urgent it is to depart from the care system currently in place, which hardly differs from the one in operation thirty years ago. Stop deceiving yourself, my fellow citizens. If you think that AIDS is the last massive attack virus that will hit this country for the remainder of its history, then you are living in a fantasy. It is crucial to apply proposed models of health care to a representative crisis in the recent past if we are to resolve a future crisis with minimum casualties.

As I close this extended commentary on health care, I wish to circle back to the beginning, at which I talked about the crisis of jobs within the default systems of economic collapse. Consider this: if President Obama had truly looked at how other such periods of turbulence had been handled, he would have seen without any doubt whatsoever the scale of job programs needed to save the lives of working people. In the mid-1970s, even a Republican president signed off on CETA (the Comprehensive Employment Training Act), and Gerald Ford did so when unemployment was far less than was happening in Obama’s first months as president. At this point, we need to study how effective a single-payer system would have been in meeting the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. If that study shows – and I suspect it would – that a single payer system would have obviated the need for gay people to resort to ACT UP in order to get the level of medical and social care that should have been their fuckin’ birthright, then it is time to move towards a single-payer system now, and to send the system that made gay people’s lives and deaths a living hell to the perdition it so richly deserves.