If you were a conservative Christian girl in the 90s, you probably know the phrase ‘screaming silver-blue eyes’. The Christy Miller Series was almost mandatory reading for our little sub-culture generation. And we tried to emulate this role model of holy femininity. So when Christy journaled, we journaled, and when Christy wrote letters to her future husband, we wrote letters to our future husband. Only in my case, which did not happen in the books, I had zero privacy in my house and it wasn’t safe for me to leave my journal at home. So I would bring it to the small church school that I went to, leaving it in my bag.
One day after lunch, a few of us were hanging out in our classroom for recess. One of my ‘friends’, grabbed my journal out of my bookbag, and began reading it out loud to our other ‘friends’. And read the part I had written about letters to my future husband, among other things. Cue laughter. And embarrassment and humiliation. (To this day, I don’t journal.)
On another similar day, I was at my desk, reading, and the girls were in the back, and they were talking in loud voices, debating whether or not they liked me, whether or not I was nice, whether or not they should be my friends. Literally talking about me behind my back. All I could do was retreat further into my book.
I look back on these and many other instances at this school and wonder why didn’t anyone stand up for me? I mean, I know why they didn’t like me. I was an outsider. I was weird (so weird). I was as independent and non-conformist as I could be, given that one of my parents was very controlling. But where was someone to see my pain, to validate my experiences? I had been broken by cruelty and entered high school terrified to look anyone in the eye. Why wouldn’t anyone help?
The house of God shall be visible to all, and those who utterly don’t belong will come to it.
I met Kenny through this post about God welcoming the Gentiles. I quickly learned his story and the story of the gay community in the 80s and 90s. He keeps asking me why I’m researching and writing this series. Why is this striking a nerve for me? I don’t have a good answer yet, except that I know what it is like to have the essence of who you are decimated and ignored by people who were supposed to love you, who supposedly followed Jesus. And I will do all I can to not do that same thing to someone else.
What happened with the gay community in the 80s is not my story to tell. But we need to know what it was like. We need to know what the fear, the isolation, the invisibility was like.
“It just seemed like everybody died.” – Stories from the Plague
“It was considered a gay men’s disease…and we were considered disposable.” – Stories from the Plague
“We were secluded from the rest – sequestered from the rest of the world so it was like where we were living it was like it was war and everywhere else it was peacetime and they didn’t want to know, and that’s how we lived.” – Stories from the Plague
“It was hard to imagine a future.” – We Were Here
“When the living can no longer speak, the dead may speak for them…Let the whole earth hear us now. We beg, we pray, we demand that this epidemic end.” – How to Survive a Plague
“To be that threatened with extinction and to not lay down, but instead to stand up and fight back – the way we did it, the way we took care of ourselves and each other. The goodness that we showed, the humanity that we showed the world is just mindboggling, just incredible.” – How to Survive a Plague
How much hate is one community supposed to take? How much invisibility can a person handle? Are people really disposable?
We build fences around things we don’t want to see, around people we fear. We penned in the Japanese because we didn’t know how to not be prejudiced. We build literal fences around our country. We retreat to our subdivisions and HOAs with houses and people that look just like us. We try and use our political systems to quarantine and ban people we don’t understand.
The media helps shape our awareness, and we are selective about our outrage. Numbers don’t matter – it’s about what’s palatable, comfortable, familiar.
In 1982, 7 people died because of tampered Tylenol pills. Within 2 months new packaging guidelines were established by the FDA and product tampering was made a federal crime.
There was an immediate recall of 31 million bottles, an immediate 100 million dollar loss for the company. Police were on the streets with loudspeakers warning people not to take Tylenol. There were 270 copycat incidents, some involving Halloween candy, which continues to scare parents to this day. More than 100,000 news stories talked about the Tylenol murders. Because 7 people died.
The New York Times covered the Tylenol story every day of October 1982, with 23 more stories in November and December.
And yet in 1982, when 771 cases of AIDS had been reported and 618 people had died, the NYT only ran 3 stories on AIDS, the same as the year before. It wasn’t until May 1983, after 1,450 cases and 558 deaths that it was finally front page news.
By 1988 there were over 100,000 cases of AIDS and 62,000 deaths in the U.S., and by and large the government and society were ignoring them.
Doctors who had sworn the Hippocratic Oath refused to treat them. Funeral homes refused to honor their bodies. Society pretended they didn’t exist. And when AIDS was talked about in the media, it was described as a plague, death, a punishment for sin, or a crime. The overall impression held by society was that it was a gay plague.
Gay plagues don’t make for good dinnertime news stories. When the concept of a gay community was brand new, when activism had not been needed, when people who seemed different were not an integrated part of society, it was easy to ignore if it didn’t affect your life.
The slogan used by AIDS activists was Silence = Death for a reason. The government, the churches, and the general public were silent about the crisis. A group being decimated by death was screaming for acknowledgement. Screaming to be made a priority, screaming for someone to look on them and save them.
When an entire society turns its gaze from a group of people in need, disaster ensues. People would get sick and just die, within days or weeks of falling ill. People would work during the day and then take dinner, sit by bedsides at night. It was a constant stream of grief and overwhelming need, and all they had was each other.
By the end of 2000, nearly 775,000 people had AIDS in the U.S. and almost 450,000 of them had died. 450,000 people dead in 20 years, and the main response from society was fear and silence. 450,000 people dead. Most of them had parents. Siblings. Some had exes and children. In-laws. Extended family and friends. Millions of people affected by disease, by stigma, by silence.
Millions of people experienced the isolation and the hate for nearly 20 years. How do we handle that now? If I have been so traumatized by middle school bullying, how does this segment of society cope with their memories?
We have to learn from what happened in the 80s and 90s, so we can begin to understand the anger and hurt that still lingers today. History has patterns, and the silence and stigma that led to death in the U.S. in the 80s is still happening around the world today.
“When future generations ask what we did in the war, we have to be able to tell them that we were out here fighting. And we have to leave a legacy to the generations of people who will come after us. Remember that someday the AIDS crisis will be over. And when that day has come and gone, there will be a people alive on this earth, gay people and straight people, black people and white people, men and women who will hear the story that once there was a terrible disease, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought, and in some cases died, so that others might live and be free.” –Vito Russo, How to Survive a Plague
Gays, AIDS, and the Church
My Story: Part 1
Fear and Silence: Part 2
The Religious Right: Part 3
Oh, the Humanity: Part 4
Modern-Day Colonialism: Part 5
Africa, Russia, the Past, and Now: Part 6
The ‘Gay Agenda’: Part 7
The Rest of My Story: Part 8
Resources: Part 9