Boy With The Bullhorn by Ron Goldberg

June 30, 1987 – My First Time

I slip away from my cubicle a little before noon. I skitter across World Trade Center Plaza, walk-run up Church Street, then over to Broadway, past City Hall, and on to Federal Plaza, where ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, is holding its big lunchtime rally. I dig out my shiny new “Silence = Death” button from the front pocket of my knapsack and pin it to my shirt. Just two days ago, I had sashayed down Fifth Avenue, all “out and proud” taking part in the annual Gay Pride Parade, but today I am feeling nervous, no, excited – you know, kinda fluttery in the chest – and perhaps a little light-headed. (I knew I should have eaten first!) I loosen my tie, take a deep breath, and remind myself that I am only going to watch. I’m not actually going to do anything.

ACT UP was the radical new AIDS “activist” organization; the one more interested in confrontation and street protest than in care-giving and quiet behind-the-scenes lobbying. They’d stunned the crowds at Pride with their shocking “AIDS Concentration Camp” float, and their raucous demonstrations had already helped pressure the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin to speed-up their lengthy AIDS drug approval process. 

Even though I’m ten minutes late, the rally still hasn’t started. I’m surprised by how few people have shown up—only about fifty-to-sixty people, tops. I circle around to a nice shady spot towards the back where I can safely split the difference between bystander and participant. I cross my arms and try to look mildly curious – hmmm, I wonder what’s going on here? – but my play-acting is interrupted by a hot, buffed activist with a cherubic face and a muscular armful of posters. He looks down at my button, then smiles and asks if I would be willing to hold up a sign. I hesitate for a moment, but as there are clearly more posters than people, I agree. He then hands me a handwritten sign that says, “Test Drugs Not People,” and asks me to move up and join the demonstration. I take a big breath and then one small step forward. 

* * *

It had been six years since I first read about the strange “gay cancer” that was attacking gay men in New York and San Francisco. Since then, over 20,000 Americans had died, and another 1,000,000 were estimated to be infected with HIV, the virus that most scientists now agreed was the cause of AIDS. Young men, guys my age, in their 20’s and 30’s, were dying horrible deaths — drowning in their beds, their lungs filled with fluid, unable to breathe; eaten alive by cancerous lesions that scarred their bodies, limbs, and faces; wasting away with exotic diseases of the brain, bowels, and intestines that had only been previously seen in pets and livestock. 

There was still no national AIDS policy or AIDS education program. Hell, President Reagan had only just barely said the word “AIDS.” And it had only been a year since The New York Times unblinkingly published William F. Buckley’s heinous proposal that the government tattoo all people with HIV – gay men on their buttocks and IV-drug users on their arms – in order to stop the spread of the disease. 

All across the country, legislators and community boards were debating and voting on laws that would enable mandatory HIV testing and quarantine. Here in New York, there was a constant flow of horror stories of people with AIDS being thrown out of their homes and left to die unattended in hospital hallways. Streets and neighborhoods were emptying, familiar faces disappearing, and all the while, our bachelor Mayor maintained a notable and uncharacteristic silence. 

I was 28 years old, gay, and unsure of my HIV status. I was scared, angry, frustrated, and more than a little freaked out. And I was looking for something, some connection, some action, some way to make a difference. 

* * *

It’s hot in the sun and I’m suddenly feeling very visible. I look around at the other demonstrators and try to absorb some of their determination and swagger. Who are these guys? They don’t look like the usual aging gay-hippie-radical-political types. In fact, they look a lot like me. Are they all sick? They don’t look sick. Wait, do they think I’m sick? 

I listen absentmindedly to the speakers, cheering and booing when everyone else does, checking out the crowd and trying my best to blend in. Then I see him. A young guy about my age standing alone in the crowd holding a hand-written sign that says: “Living with AIDS 2 years, 2 months and 20 days; no thanks to you Mr. Reagan.” 

I had never met anyone with AIDS. I mean, I had seen people who I assumed had AIDS—they were thin and weak and looked like they were going to die. But this guy looked fine. More than fine. He was cute, sexy even, like he still went to the gym. I tried not to stare, but I kept looking back at him, trying to take him in, to figure him out, and above all, trying to understand why someone who didn’t actually look sick would voluntarily hold up a sign in the middle of Manhattan announcing that he had AIDS. 

When the rally was over, I tagged along with the crowd as they marched around Foley Square and then over to the federal courthouse, where a group of demonstrators was planning to get arrested. Although I was concerned about leaving the relative protection of the park, I discovered that marching through the crowds and chanting somehow made me feel stronger and less vulnerable. 

When we finally reached the courthouse, I found myself standing right next to the guy with the sign. But now, up close, I could see that he was wearing a heavy layer of make-up on his face and that there, on his nose and chin, were the faint shadows of two KS lesions. 

While each of the diseases associated with AIDS had their own unique cruelties, Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS) was the one I was most afraid of. Those splotchy purple KS lesions were not just ugly and disfiguring (and, of course, deadly). They were also a shaming “scarlet letter” marking you as diseased and announcing to everyone that you had AIDS, that you were gay, and that you probably got it from being fucked. (There was even a joke going around at the time, “What’s the hardest part of having AIDS? Convincing your parents that you’re Haitian.”) Just the idea of KS completely terrified me. 

But now here I am, face-to-face with someone who has it, who’s got KS, and even though he’s wearing make-up to hide his lesions, he’s not ashamed of having AIDS. In fact, he’s carrying a sign proclaiming to the world that he’s got it and is living with the disease. And instead of quietly withering away and dying, he’s joining arms on the courthouse steps with thirty other guys who might also be sick, daring the police to arrest him, and demanding that his life as gay man and a person living with AIDS has value and deserves to be saved. 

Rushing back downtown to the office, my head was pounding, my heart spinning. I removed the “Silence = Death” button from my shirt and hid it in my knapsack. I felt guilty, ashamed, but I was afraid to let anyone know that I had been at an AIDS demonstration. I didn’t know how people would react and I didn’t yet have the words to explain what I had just experienced. And even if people didn’t make the connection between the phrase “Silence = Death” and AIDS, there was still the button’s bright pink triangle that would brand me as gay, and I didn’t see why I had to broadcast that fact to everyone on the street. 

Not that I was ashamed of being gay. I was “out and proud,” or so I thought, but there is a great deal of distance between being out in your personal life, or even at work, and wearing it like a yellow star on your shirt. Or, I guess, celebrating being gay in a Pride Parade and shouting on the courthouse steps that your life as a gay man is worth fighting for.

© Ron Goldberg 2012

© Ron GoldberG 2012