and I cannot stop touching my face
PART 1: Hurray! A Virus that’s not gay!
IN THIS BRAVE, NEW, NOVEL CORONAVIRUS world, I’m not afraid of what I might encounter on the streets, in the produce section of Loblaw’s or on a crowded streetcar. I’m afraid of what I’ll encounter at home. In what should be my eighth-floor isolation tank I’m under siege, for most of my visitors at least occasionally spend their nights in a homeless shelter, and though Public Health Toronto assures me that social distancing and hand-washing are being practised to a rigorous nicety in these minus-five-star hostels, I somehow don’t totally, one-hundred percent buy it.
But no one that I know has died, yet, not even someone that a friend knows, not even a friend’s friend’s friend. Only people on TV have died, statistic people, dots on a graph, pie-chart people. Meanwhile my privileged white brain insists that white guys just don’t get sick.
But do white gay guys get sick?
Hello, heterosexuals. How are you coping?
Those of you who aren’t ornery scofflaws— who defy instructions to practise preventive measures and tell Facebook groups that“more people die of the flu” (which you can’t possibly know, because this pandemic has just begun)—are all in a panic, confused by the conflicting directions—
about using or not using masks (there is little evidence that wearing a mask protects the wearer, unless you are wearing the medical-grade NIOSH-approved masks which are in desperately short supply—in which case you are depriving a healthcare worker of that one and putting her at risk; wearing a simple or home-made mask MAY marginally protect others from you, if you are infected. If you do wear a mask you MUST STILL practice social distancing and be rigorous about hand-washing and about how you touch and dispose of the mask. If your local public health agency has mandated wearing masks, of course you must do so);
about whether you can leave the house or go to the store (I can’t really tell you, it depends on where you live. Generally, yes you can, IF you are not under orders to stay at home or self-isolate, but stay two metres away from people and keep these excursions to the absolute minimum. Listen to, trust and follow the advice of doctors and scientists, NOT politicians.);
or what’s quarantine versus isolation (quarantine is what you do for two weeks when you have no symptoms, no known exposure to the virus, OR what you do if you have recently traveled; isolation is what you do when you’re ill and actively symptomatic, or have known contact with the infected; if this is the case, you are probably under orders to do so. I repeat: Listen to and trust and follow the advice of doctors and scientists, NOT politicians.).
As the days grind into weeks, you’re probably feeling increasingly haunted, like the spooked protagonist in a slasher movie. And you have no omnipotent narrator, you have to piece together what’s happening by yourself, bit by bit.
Your paranoia and anxiety are like a nagging pain that carves sharp outlines around the smallest movement, the most insignificant thought. Someone may be watching you, calling out, “NO! For the love of god, don’t put that fork in your mouth—!!” but they’re in the audience; you’re in the movie.
You’re suddenly realizing that this is serious shit, that the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV2, is lying in wait, everywhere.
Toxic droplets spritz out of the mouths of your co-workers, virus RNA is lurking on the loving hand you caress after dinner, orbiting your cutlery to the sound of the “Blue Danube” Waltz, sewn into your throw cushions and festering on the bathroom sink..
The virus can live, in the right conditions, for hours. Days. A touch, a breath, a few droplets of saliva in the air, and you’ll be infected. You may not know you’re infected, and there is substantial transmission from the estimated twenty-five percent of those infected who are asymptomatic. You could pass the virus on to your partner, your children. The grocery store clerk.
A woman in Vancouver sat on a church pew, contracted the virus, and died.
In fact, seventy per cent of us will contract the virus. But I promise you, we won’t call it the “Straight Disease,” or even the “Wuhan Virus,” because those terms would sound like accusations, as unwarranted and prejudicial as calling HIV a “gay virus” and AIDS the “gay disease.”
I WAS LIVING IN LONDON, ENGLAND, during the 1980s when AIDS invaded our bodies and our minds. I remember the party I attended—this must have been 1981 or early 1982—when we first started talking about the reports that were coming out about a cohort of gay men whose immune systems had broken down, a cluster of cases of rarely-seen opportunistic infections.
The three horsemen of this apocalypse were a horribly disfiguring cancer; a pneumonia so virulent that its victims turned cyanotic; dementia and blindness caused by cytomegalovirus.
The acronym AID had meant artificial insemination by donor: lesbians using turkey basters to beget children without the imposition of a dick. Now it was superseded by “AIDS,” “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.”
“Acquired.” In other words, “lifestyle;” fags behaving badly. The medical establishment thought it was, among other lifestyle choices, “poppers:” amyl nitrate, an inhalant used medically for emergency treatment of angina and recreationally for emergency treatment of inhibition. Its blood pressure-lowering vasodilation and its ability to break down sexual boundaries as you plummeted down its elevator shaft of lust made amyl nitrate, and its country cousin, butyl, the go-to trailer trash intoxicants of the disco era.
The cause of AIDS wasn’t poppers, of course. But the discovery of the Human Immunodeficiency virus, HIV, didn’t come out until many deaths later. AIDS, therefore, is a misnomer, a relic of the few years when no one had a clue, and when taking an interest in a disease that singled out gay men was political suicide. Researchers were desperately attempting to solve the puzzle even as the political establishment, overwhelmingly white, male and Christian, refused to engage—until the mysterious small cohort suddenly exploded into an epidemic too devastating and too ugly to be ignored any longer.
AIDS, with its dramatic fast-track aging, its ability to consume the flesh and leave sufferers emaciated as famine victims, cruelly outed those gay exiles who had hidden their orientation from judgmental family and friends, left home and boogie’d on down the road to whatever big-city paradise of freedom and anonymity shone its glittery light most enticingly.
Now families were finally reunited, but it was a reunion of ashes: fathers holding the skeletal corpses of sons in hospital rooms, bellowing with grief, realizing that their rejection, tacit or explicit, had made them the vector of transmission.
Doris Day, who in her light-hearted film roles was the epitome of the independent career gal brimming with wholesome yet subversive sexuality, is shown on television hugging the wasted frame of Rock Hudson. Rock, in real life her dear friend and a bona-fide queer, is A-list Hollywood royalty, her co-star in a delightful rom-com or two and, as far as the public is concerned, the last word in dreamy, suave, six-foot tall, broad-shouldered heterosexuality. Now the question is: Who will be next?
Not next to get AIDS. Who will be the next person you never thought would be gay, but is? Your son? Your friend? Your hairdresser? Your husband?
The hug is significant: because no one knows yet what causes the disease, no one wants to touch AIDS patients.
A ghastly round of funerals, memorials, cremations becomes social life. These strange things called condoms that no one wants to use. You call a friend you had dinner with two weeks ago, and a friend or family member answers: He’s dead. This gets really interesting when it’s a friend you had sex with two weeks ago.
The first experimental treatments are out: They’re as toxic as chemotherapy, approximately as subtle, and as predictable as snake oil. Gay men are, in effect, laboratory animals. The treatments cause lipodystrophy, a disfiguring rearrangement of fat cells of the body. (Always this savage irony of maiming, of mutilation, in a subculture viciously judgmental of non-ripped bodies, of not-beautiful faces, of un-fabulous, dull, quotidian anything.) You get a hump on your upper back, a real, honest-to-god horror-movie hump, or your face hollows out; you are unrecognizable except as an AIDS Victim.
Gay men, outcasts who’ve long ago accepted their banishment and done their fearful, defiant best to stay out of sight, for their safety and society’s comfort, are made aggressively, offensively visible, marked with the stigmata of shame. Victims, male damsels in distress.
HIV is transmitted through blood contact. For gay men, this means primarily through anal sex. Heterosexuals, of course, have never in the whole history of time, ever, for any reason, practiced anal sex, and, really, how could the sexual practice of disgusting homosexuals be anything but disgusting?
Those who’ve been infected via blood transfusions, in other words, those who are not gay, are referred to in the press as innocent victims, just in case pity or compassion might moisten an eye for queers. This is enthymeme in its most sinister finery: you call gay men architects of their own, deserved destruction, without even mentioning gay men, by calling everyone but gay men “innocent.”
The cloak of deception, once put on, burns through flesh. Already consumed with guilt after hearing ourselves called “queer,” “disgusting” and “pervert” from the time we were able to understand words, we endured the horror of believing, because we were told, that the phantom of our sin was walking amongst us, arm in arm with death as he gathered up his harvest.
It could not be happening, but it was happening. The swollen splotches of blood-colored sarcoma on the faces of cadaverous frontliners who just weeks ago had been beautiful men were the flowers of our evil. We’d murdered our loved ones and sexual partners; even our own bodies loathed us.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the most trusted physician in the US, a distinguished immunologist, and the chief medical advisor to the Trump administration on COVID-19, is a familiar face to me. He was very much present during the AIDS crisis and he speaks to me directly from that time. Frustrated about the direction of AIDS research, he accepted the post of director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, and made it into the world’s biggest source of funding for AIDS research.
Funds were scarce; AIDS research was far from a priority. Reagan had just been elected, and Jerry Falwell, co-founder of the Moral Majority, had said:
“AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals. It is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”
Now that a pandemic affects you, tell me how you feel. Scary, isn’t it? How are you coping? Are you afraid for your loved ones? For yourself?
Feeling a little depressed? Crying? Going stir-crazy? Are you feeling guilty about eating, hugging, shaking hands, going to church, seeing a movie, visiting your mom in the old folks’ home?
Are you having sex? Are you promiscuous?