It’s funny—I was born shortly after this picture was taken, yet to my eyes, it’s jarringly recent. Dated, for sure, but not so unlike the world that I grew up in. My public schools painted a picture of American history in which this sort of shoe-leather struggle was emblematic of the 30s and 40s, had its last hurrah in the 60s with Vietnam and the counterculture, then sort of evaporated. By the time my generation came along, “progress” was about alphabet-soup humanitarian organizations and poignant essays in Reader’s Digest (now I’m dating myself), not violence, oppression and plague.
Yes, if you weren’t aware, there was a plague here. That is not an exaggeration. In 1994, AIDS was the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25 to 44. That’s the leading cause of death overall, which is jaw-dropping on its own. When you consider the niche communities that were disproportionately affected, and how utterly the disease had to devastate those communities in order to achieve number one murderer of young Americans, it’s unfathomable. And the only thing more insane than the plague itself is that so many of us did not know that it happened.
Now, granted, in 1994 I was graduating pre-school; it’s not like I was voting or anything. But you would think an epidemic that was claiming lives by the tens of thousands would buried in our cultural flesh like a six-inch blade, wouldn’t you? And yet somehow, this mass trauma—a significant chunk of which coincided with my lifetime—had no overlap with my world at all. I didn’t even know it was a thing until high school, when some textbook explained that it was sort of the heavyweight STD, but didn’t go into much detail. I assumed that it was, like cancer or flu, simply a known feature of the world, something that had always been around and that civilization had incorporated into its design.
No one even told me that there was any connection between having AIDS and being gay. I was in college by the time I twigged to that. I probably even dismissed it as a prejudicial myth at first. I was naturally a precocious ally of the equal-rights movement, but thinking I understood the struggle without knowing this chapter of the story was like thinking I understood American history while having only the vaguest notion of some ancestral dispute between the north and south.
It is embarrassing and shameful that this is not considered one of the defining chapters in our national story. Aside from September 11th and the Cold War, it’s hard to think of anything our society has experienced in the last 40 years that should be more affecting or more altering than this Plague. I realize that the explanation lies in that very falsehood: we didn’t experience it as a society. We enabled ourselves to deny its existence by forcing a few people, the unwanted people, to carry its full weight on their backs. I can’t help but think of the Germans who were shocked, shocked to discover that the greatest moral atrocities in human history were conducted in camps only miles from their homes. And that brand of surreality was supposed to belong to the pre-postmodern “past.”
Instead, here at the “end of history,” when all the wars were won and we were accumulating more wealth and power than any empire ever dreamed of, a group of us were left alone in our midst, abandoned to fight for their survival on the basest level. And even now, in 2014, when all the world’s information and every person’s story lives in your fucking pocket, it still feels like most of us would rather not hear about it, as if it was rude of all those people to die in our faces. It should not be possible to wall them off. As far as I’m concerned, they stand on a level with the people in the burning towers. Their blood is in our soil, their threads are in our tapestry, and our minimum duty is to keep and tell their stories. AIDS is no less than American heritage, and on behalf of an ill-informed generation, I humbly suggest it’s time to start treating it as such. The recent slew of AIDS-related media, from The Normal Heart and on, seems like a start.