Five Plague Years ‘AIDS in New York,’ at New-York Historical Society

By  Published: June 6, 2013

Disease is always an intrusion, an indignity, an assault, a devastation. And if the new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, “AIDS in New York: The First Five Years,” were about any other epidemic, that is what it might evoke. Here is how influenza or polio or the Ebola virus manifested itself. Here is how it was identified and fought. And here are the scars it left behind on the living.

 

The New York TimesFive Plague Years

But the photographs, magazine covers, posters, documents, artifacts and videos at this exhibition recall a time, just over 30 years ago, when a disease seemed to burrow deeper than mere death, transforming a city.

 

The exhibition begins with a world of pleasure, represented by images of the exuberant sexual openness of the 1970s, including photos from Plato’s Retreat (a sex club of the period) and of the male sunbathing pickup scene on Pier 48, on Manhattan’s West Side. One doctor, cited in accompanying text, said, “It was party time for everyone, heterosexuals as well as homosexuals.”

 

Then came disease. The exhibition celebrates some early heroes in the medical profession, like Linda Laubenstein and Joseph Sonnabend; identifies its villains, including the conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who saw the disease as divine retribution, and some New York City agencies that failed to react quickly enough; and mourns its victims, who, in some of the photos here, are wasted, disfigured, on the verge of death.

 

Finally, a section of the exhibition called “The End of the Beginning” includes the identification of H.I.V. (The exhibition credits the French team at the Pasteur Institute in 1984.) In a yellow carrying case, nestled in sponge, are eight small plastic bottles: a 1985 Abbott Human Lymphotropic Virus Type III EIA Kit, the first test that could screen for the virus.

 

But the curator, Jean Ashton, in gathering material from the historical society, the New York Public Library, New York University, the National Archive of LGBT History and private collections, gives this familiar narrative an important turn. Despite some flaws, by focusing narrowly on a particular place and time and not trying to survey the disease’s larger history, the exhibition shows how virulently AIDS tore at the city’s social and political fabric from 1981 to 1985.

 

There are handwritten “surveillance” sheets from the city’s Municipal Archives, tabulating infections by race and age, “working with groups who until the late 1960s had been treated like criminals.” There is a hospital document setting out guidelines for dealing with “specimens from AIDS patients” (“extraordinary care must be taken to avoid accidental wounds”). And there are video excerpts from the 1985 premiere of Larry Kramer’s acerbic, bitter play about the time, “The Normal Heart.”

 

In the early years of the plague, we are reminded, AIDS puzzlingly appeared in what was widely called the Four H’s: homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs and Haitians. Victims also included children (and a companion exhibition, “Children With AIDS: Spirit and Memory,” with photographs by Claire Yaffa, is running concurrently at a gallery down the hall).

 

But the concentration of gay men among the ill was evident from the start. Beginning in the late 1970s doctors began to report unusual spikes in sexually transmitted diseases in gay populations. Then once rare cancers, like Kaposi’s sarcoma, along with pneumocystis pneumonia, started to appear and wreak havoc.

 

Lawrence Mass, one of the early New York physicians to recognize a problem, contacted the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta in April 1981 to inquire if rumors of a gay disease were true; the rumors were denied, and we see the text from an issue of The New York Native from that May in which Dr. Mass reassures readers. But by June the problem was acknowledged in the Centers’ publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, also on display.

 

But there was still nothing tying many of these illnesses together. Another doctor who had recognized the onset of these medical issues, Donna Mildvan, was sitting at lunch with a colleague when they realized, she said, that the infections they were discussing “resulted from immunocompromise.”

 

“We had no idea of how this would develop,” she says in an interview quoted in the exhibition, “but we were scared.”

 

So, among a group that had only recently begun to taste the possibilities of openness, including some who had indulged in that freedom with abandon, there came this disease that assaulted that very way of life, attacking not just the body but the core of a nascent identity — and ultimately challenged sexual license.

 

But in those early years no one was sure how it was spread. Early suspicions that the syndrome was contagious and that sexual activity aided its transmission were resisted by many gay men. As later became clear, the disease’s long latency, with symptoms not appearing until almost a year after infection, meant it also could be spread unawares. Moreover, the disease’s early association with homosexuality (AIDS was then known as GRID, for gay-related immunodeficiency) heightened prejudices among the wider public. Uncertainty about the nature of the condition meant that even ordinary cautiousness about contagion could easily veer into avoidance or worse. READ MORE HERE: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/07/arts/design/aids-in-new-york-at-new-york-historical-society.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&smid=fb-share

 

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