Why Clubbing Was Crucial for Gay Men During the AIDS Crisis

"Often, I was relieved to see people at parties; I had assumed they had died in the interim."

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02 December 2015, 12:12am

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At the memorial service for Tom Savage, my partner of nearly 12 years who died of AIDS, I said that this disease was like a pebble dropped into a bucket, filmed in reverse: What began as a ripple that reached only my acquaintances eventually moved closer and closer to my friends—until finally, with Tom's death in May 2001, it reached the very core of my being.

My partner Tom (left) and me on Fire Island in 1994

The first ripple began with someone I dated before leaving New York City in 1980 to get my journalism graduate degree in Missouri. When I returned to New York City for a visit the next year, his personality had done a 180-degree turn from shy and quiet to brittle and pretty wild. He was devoted to a new, members-only gay club in the East Village that everyone was talking about called the Saint.

When the club opened its doors in 1981, the line stretched for several blocks. Men danced from Saturday night well into Sunday evening until Memorial Day, when buses ceremoniously picked up the remaining revelers and deposited them at the Fire Island ferry dock. Even at the opening, however, the Saint's poster ended up being an eerie presentiment of the future – St. Sebastian with lasers shooting out from him in place of the arrows familiar from so many paintings. The club was the reason why one of the first popular names for what became AIDS was "the Saint's Disease."

The ripples began moving closer in 1983, when I was just starting my career as a journalist. That year was the height of the AIDS hysteria, and people feared becoming infected by everything from public toilets to mosquitoes. One of my first assignments, as the editor of a weekly newspaper on the East End of Long Island, was covering the first AIDS benefit in the Hamptons—a party given by New York Times' retired food editor Craig Claiborne. The money went to Gay Men's Health Crisis (now called GMHC), the first AIDS service organization.

That benefit party marked the progress of AIDS from a stigmatized disease to one embraced by the elite donor class. Prior to that, the only benefits were those put on by gay men themselves. The new influx of financial support was a cold comfort at the time, however, because information about the disease was so scarce—and a cure seemed so far away. In fact, even in the absence of scientific proof, people desperately clung to any kind of regimen they hoped would have an effect. For an earlier assignment, I attended a meeting at New York's LGBT center in Greenwich Village, where the men I interviewed believed a macrobiotic diet could delay the onset of full-blown AIDS.

A party for the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1988

If it sounds outlandish now, consider that scientists had just discovered the virus that causes AIDS that same year, 1983, and the United government only began officially tracking AIDS cases the year prior. Thus, most doctors frequently knew less than the people in the trenches. As the resident physician at the health center in Fire Island Pines—the preferred beach community for Manhattan's gay professionals—told me years later, "People were coming in who had read every medical journals. They knew way more about it than I did."

New York remained the center of the epidemic in its formative years, but Fire Island Pines was the community that was first and hit the worst. It was there, in 1980, that the first gay man contracted the symptoms of what would become known as AIDS.

My own introduction to the Pines came in 1985, when a man who was guiding me into the confusing and highly stratified thicket of gay life invited me to a house on Fire Island Boulevard he shared with seven other men. By then, the island had reached its nadir. Several houses remained unoccupied, the owners having died intestate, their homes contested between far-away relatives and life partners.

On Fire Island, as in New York, however, the parties continued. In 1985, it was still considered de rigueur never to arrive at the Pavilion, the center of Pines nightlife, before 3 AM. At the house where I was staying, we took the requisite "disco nap" after dinner and awoke in time to arrive at the Pavilion at 3:30 AM. When I took the ferry back to the mainland at 2 PM Sunday afternoon, I could still see men leaning over the Pavilion's balcony, their bodies bathed in sweat, the music wafting out from the club.

In 1986, I returned to the Pines as a renter myself. The next year, when I ran into my old roommate, he told me someone he had slept with had passed away the previous winter. "That's the first I've known personally who died of AIDS," I told him.

I'll never forget the chill I felt at his response: "It won't be the last."

Within three years, all but one of the 11 men who shared that house on Fire Island Boulevard died.

A party on Fire Island

The ripples kept moving relentlessly closer and closer in my life. The rest of the decade became a seemingly endless blur of phone calls that began, "Did you hear about ...," hospital visits, memorial services and trying to sort out the remains of a life snuffed out too quickly to leave a will. In his 1993 play Jeffrey, the first comedy about the epidemic, playwright Paul Rudnick satirized the way gay New Yorkers elevated memorial services into an elegant art form—people criticize the hors d'oeuvres and rate the eulogies. That's not how it happened for me: I only remember weekly gatherings where we would share tearful reminiscencesat nondescript funeral homes or houses of worship, where the priest or rabbi barely knew the deceased, if at all.

As so often happens in times of overwhelming calamity, we sought escape, at least for a night or weekend, in the flashing lights, blaring sound and packed dance floors of nightclubs and Circuit party weekends. At the same time as AIDS was cutting its deadly swathe across the gay community, a series of major dance events around the country, such as the Palm Springs White Party, were attracting hordes of gay men that became collectively known as "the Circuit." Inevitably, many of these, such as Montreal's Black & Blue and Miami's White Party, were founded to raise funds for local AIDS organizations.

On Fire Island, the Morning Party began with a handful of people who charged a few dollars to keep the party going after the Pavilion ended on Sunday morning. The party grew to become one of the largest AIDS fund-raisers in the country. In New York City, parties like the 1989 Love Ball, Susanne Bartsch's vogue extravaganza, also raised money and awareness.

Meanwhile, my own clubbing experience involved mainstream rooms like Palladium and Tunnel, to weekdays at the Chapel, the gay back section of Limelight; gay nights like Bump at Club USA; holiday special events from the Saint at Large; and summer weekends at Fire Island's Pavilion. Club culture inevitably affected and was affected by the epidemic. Often, I was relieved to see people at the Saint at Large parties; I had assumed they had died in the interim.

There were two times in my life when I thought I had contracted the HIV virus. The first time, in 1986, all I can remember is a phone call telling me my results, followed by an extended apology: A research assistant had mixed up the numbers that identified participants. (Shortly after that, it became standard to require anyone taking an HIV test to receive the results in person.)

The second time occurred late in 1993. I had just returned from a business trip when Tom told me to sit down. That was already a giveaway. He told me he and his doctor concluded that I had to have transmitted the virus. I immediately called a friend who worked at the New York Blood Center. "You're going to give an HIV test," I told him, "and I'm not waiting two weeks for the results."

Tom and I never could figure out how it happened. But you know something? The only thing that mattered was that we loved each other.

Even if I've been spared HIV infection, it seems to keep finding new ways to pierce my heart. Just last night, my niece and I attended a performance where the cast was taking donations in the lobby for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS semi-annual funding drive. I was shocked when my niece blithely waltzed past the actor holding the collection bucket.

"How could you do that when you know what happened to your uncle's partner?" I asked her. I don't buy for a minute her excuse of student debt and other expenses after endless Instagrams of a lavish vacation to England and nights spent in expensive restaurants. But, angry as I am, I also understand that her generation dismisses HIV as "manageable illness." For her as for most people, AIDS barely registers.

That point was brought home to me several years at a college reunion. A research pediatrician – one who specializes in children with incurable illnesses in Detroit's inner city no less – told me, "I can't imagine what you must have gone through."

Maybe nobody can.