You Can’t Beat the Devil, But you Can Die Trying

In March 1983, Larry Kramer, American playwright and gay men’s health activist, published an article entitled, “1,112 and Counting,” which chronicled the number of AIDS cases so far. It was a call to action not just to the government and news media, but also to the gay community, who, except for a few activists in big cities, were mostly ignoring what they considered hype trumped up by alarmists. Larry Kramer, who was a long-time advocate for gay men not to be promiscuous and had made enemies in the community because of it, finally had their attention. However, one of the major points of contention, which had been bandied about for the last year or so when cases of the as yet unnamed “gay cancer” were first being diagnosed, had been the closing of the bathhouses. No one wanted to even talk about that, not the business owners, for obvious reasons, nor the patrons, who balked that such a measure spoke of inhibiting sexual freedom and body autonomy. Dr. Selma Dritz said to Gaetan Dugas (the man later erroneously referred to as “Patient Zero”) when Gaetan had made a similar claim, “It’s not your right to go out and give other people disease. Then you’re making decisions for their bodies, not yours.”

Current statistics for AIDS-related deaths are as follows: As of 2018, about 700,000 people have died of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, and nearly 13,000 people with AIDS in the United States die each year. Or, more simply, around 35 people a day. Still.

I’m not trying to blame the victim here, which was another thing mentioned in the early days of the crisis. What I’m saying, and what medical professionals and advocates were saying then, was that common sense dictated certain actions to help prevent the spread of a disease they were still learning about. It cannot be understated that the Reagan administration, with their CDC budget cuts and their complete ignoring of the burgeoning epidemic, are largely to blame for these deaths. What I am saying, however, is that there was a contingent of the gay community who put pleasure ahead of safety. There are a lot of reasons for this, I know. Some of those stem from years of oppression, both at a government level, and from their own families. I know it’s easy for me to sit here, nearly 40 years later, and be angry at these people. Part of that anger comes from the fact that I have friends who have been diagnosed with HIV, most of us have by this point. One can only wonder how many less deaths there would have been if both government entities, as well as some members of the gay community who continued to have unprotected sex and fight for their right to do so, hadn’t acted sooner to take preventative measures.

It brings me to parallels with the current pandemic and those who refuse to wear a mask and/or get vaccinated. As Dr. Dritz so eloquently stated, “Then you’re making the decisions for their [unsuspecting victims] bodies and not yours.” We have already had 944,517 COVID related deaths in the US in just over two years. And yet, there are still people advocating for body autonomy, not caring that their body isn’t the only one affected. Maybe fear plays a part in it, the thought that they can beat the Devil if they have a strong enough attitude. I’m not sure how much is that fear and how much is stupid pride, but I honestly don’t care. It’s irresponsible, negligent homicide.

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