Journal of the Plague Year 2020: Action = Life

I started the day by watching New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s briefing and press conference. Yesterday deaths spiked in New York. Gov. Cuomo explained soberly that this is part of the expected progression of the pandemic. The state and city have entered a phase where many people have been on ventilators for 20-30 days without improvement. Their condition deteriorates, and they die.

After explaining the numbers, and the tragedy they represent, Gov. Cuomo said:

“I don’t want to sugarcoat the situation. It’s not an easy time. But easy times don’t forge character. Tough times forge character.”

He talked in very simple, moving terms about how the city and state and country are being tested: “Some people say they’re tired. Look, I’m tired. But I look at the health care workers and police officers and grocery store clerks and bus drivers who have to get up and go in and drive the health care workers to their jobs, and I realize, they don’t have the luxury of being tired.”

And he voiced a truth that’s comforted me a lot, that I’ve struggled to convey. A reporter asked him what message he had for people who had lost their jobs and were struggling. His reply seemed strange at first:

“We’ve all lost our jobs. I lost my job.”

Then he explained:

“Usually when you lose your job, you’re alone with that. There’s a strength in the fact that it’s all of us. That suggests that we have to do something, because the collective demands it. None of us has been through this before. It’s a terrible thing, a frightening thing. It’s going to change us, and help form a new generation.

“You’re not alone. No one is alone. We’re all in the same situation.”

This pandemic is bigger than all of us. It’s our collective responsibility to limit infections, heal the sick, bury the dying, and comfort the grieved. It’s our responsibility to figure out how to see that everyone stays fed, sheltered and clothed, and to give each other joy and hope. There is strength in the fact that it’s all of us.

This pandemic will define us as individuals, and as a nation. It gives us an opportunity to recognize our common humanity and care for one another. This is incredibly rare and precious. I  have faith in the outcome because, like the tech who drew my blood at El Rio, I was “seasoned” by the AIDS crisis.

AIDS entered the headlines as a “Gay Epidemic” in 1986, the year I graduated high school.  At that time, being gay was entirely taboo and unspoken; being transgender was literally unthinkable. There were rumors about a girl on the track team, the captain of the football team, the Advanced Placement English teacher. There were bars and clubs, the occasional bookstore. MTV provided tantalizing glimpses of another world: Annie Lennox singing “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” in a gorgeous, soaring soprano and shaven head. I ransacked the record stores for UK Import Only EPs and snapped up 45s for their precious B-sides: “Greta X,” “Red Scab,” “Beat My Guest,” “Human Bondage Den.”

Reader, if you’re young and American or old and straight, you may wonder why queer life was hidden and coded and secretive, and happened in bathroom stalls and bars.

Because it was illegal, and it could get you killed.

Sodomy was against the law in most states, including mine. Straight people could commit whatever acts they chose, because the law was intended to eradicate an identity. It existed to punish queer people: To arrest them, fine them, and shame them.

I’ve seen a few interviews with Adam Ant where he tells comic stories about touring as a punk act in the late 1970s. Getting spat on, having beer bottles thrown at his head. He was even stomped by skinheads outside the BBC studios after a triumphant appearance on Top of the Pops.

Behind those stories is an uncomfortable truth: He was effeminate. He wore makeup and dressed extravagantly, and made a point of stripping during performances. He failed at gender deliberately and publicly, and urged his audience to do it, too.  So he got his ass kicked.

Matthew Shepard. Boys Don’t Cry. The trans woman whose murder is narrated in the documentary Paris is Burning. The assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in America.

This is how I understood the bargain growing up queer in America: if you shut the fuck up and pass, we’ll let you live and you can keep your job.

Then AIDS happened. The virus outed people, because they got sick and died. President Reagan ignored the crisis, then ridiculed and blamed victims. The government responded with maddening lethargy and disinterest. And, just like today, some people suggested that it would only affect a few undesirables.

Remember the bargain? Shut the fuck up and pass, and we’ll let you live.

Heartbreakingly, queer people realized that they’d been fooled. We wanted to live. The government wanted us to be quiet and invisible. Far from being a bargain, those needs were incompatible.

That’s why the motto of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) was Silence = Death. Because it was suicide to keep our end of the bargain. And it always had been.

The gay community was decimated, and for many, many years it was isolated and abandoned by the country as a whole. It was an unimaginably grueling, frightening passage, documented in books like And the Band Played On, the novels of Gary Indiana, the plays of Terrence McNally (who died this past week of coronavirus), the horrifying image of artist David Wojnarowicz with his mouth sewn shut.

Over time, though, a quiet miracle occurred. Everyone knew someone who had AIDS, or who came out because of it. People talked about things that had been unspeakable, and grappled with very practical problems: Hospitals barring people from seeing their lifelong partners and participating in decisions about their care. Gay couples denied inheritance, shared health insurance, and all the other privileges of marriage. The basic cruelty and inequity was exposed, and died in the presence of light.

Over time, the slogan shifted:

Silence = Death

Action = Life

Still later, Queer Nation started to chant: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

People did. Over time, we decided, individually and collectively, that maybe those undesirables deserved our care and compassion after all. We made it though, as a community and a nation.

Today, gay marriage has been upheld by the Supreme Court. A gay presidential candidate won a significant number of delegates. I work with dozens of engineers who are out, and their straight coworkers casually say things like, “I met Andrew’s husband at happy hour. Nice guy for a lawyer.” Young people can’t understand what it was like back then, and I’m grateful for that. None of it would have happened without AIDS.

The coronavirus preys on the elderly and the ill. It exposes the cruelty and inequity of the American health care system, and the lie of the gig economy. We’re confronted with unsavory facts: Most Americans can’t afford a long hospital stay. Home health care workers live on the edge of poverty. Far too many people have no sick leave, and are forced to work when they’re ill and contagious.

Terrible as it is, this virus represents an opportunity. People were suffering before coronavirus. They went to work sick, skipped insulin shots to save money, struggled to pay off crushing student debt. Collectively, we decided that was an acceptable price to pay for shareholder value and tax cuts.

Disease makes inequity visible; we’re confronted with human suffering and sacrifice, and we’re forced to respond.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen genuine courage and tenderness and kindness all around me.

I know love will win. We’ll get through.

Confirmed Covid-19 cases in Arizona: 577

People hospitalized: 66

Deaths: 8

For the next few weeks, I’ll be writing hyper-local observations on the Covid-19 outbreak. Those entries will be titled Journal of the Plague Year 2020, while episodes from the ongoing fantasy novel Biography of Inglorion will have chapter numbers, and appropriate categories and tags.

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