How This Is Not Like AIDS
Saturday would have been my friend Bobby Levithan’s birthday.
I think he is my only friend who has died whose birthday I have not erased from my reminders.
Bobby was one of those people you just don’t want to forget. Not that you could.
There were many extraordinary things about Bobby. His warm personality, his astonishingly handsome looks, his smile and his unwavering friendship to name a few.
But Bobby had something else that set him apart. Bobby was one of the very first patients in the first trial for AIDS, back when it was called Gay Cancer. A time when LGBTQ rights were not part of the culture. Back when it was brave to admit you were gay, sometimes even if you lived in LA, San Francisco or New York.
Back when an unknown, untreatable, killer disease carried a huge stigma along with it. It only attacked gay men. Until it didn’t.
It was a time when people spit out gay cancer the way Trump spits out the word China. Like it was a sliver of wood that somehow made it into your salad.
Bobby, who was, well, he would not argue deeply promiscuous into his 60’s was a perfect candidate for what at that time was gay cancer.
In the earliest days, he allowed himself to be a guinea pig. He allowed his blood to be in one of the first batches that tried to figure out what this disease was; And how people got it. From that point on he committed much of his life to AIDS.
He was an original member of In God’s Love We Deliver. He was a shrink who worked with AIDS patients up until the end of his life. He was also one of the only people, to ever go from full-blown symptomatic, death bed AIDS to full recovery. Bobby was a miracle in many ways.
Bobby died four years ago of pancreatic cancer. Stylishly with dignity, the way he lived his life.
I have been thinking a lot lately about how COVID differs from AIDS. Up until now, AIDS was the worst disease I have lived through.
Some people say they are similar. Some people say AIDS was worse. Some ignorant people throw them into the same file as SARS, MERS, Mad Cow Disease and Swine Flu.
Having lived through them all, let me tell you there is nothing in common with any of them in the absolute.
Certainly, the SARS, MERS, Mad Cow Disease and Swine Flu crew have nothing in common with the other two. Nobody’s life changed one bit in this country with those outbreaks. Oh, I forgot Ebola, it doesn’t count either. I mean it counts. But it’s not the same. And by the same I mean we did not alter our lives to accommodate it.
With Mad Cow, you stopped eating meat if you were smart. Frankly, and I will save it for another day, you’re smart not to eat animals period. But that was the only accommodation one made.
Maybe I’m losing my memory, but I don’t remember one thing about SARS or MERS. I remember getting some Tamiflu from the doctor to keep in the house in the event of.
Nothing closed. Nobody stopped going out, seeing people, touching people I don’t remember anyone in a mask.
I will be sixty-two years old a month from yesterday, I have never owned a mask in my life until this month.
Swine Flu I remember because somehow Taylor came down with it. She was pretty sick for a week. But just bad flu sick. None of us got it. No one wanted to come to our house. And there was some function at her school that had to be called off due to her having possibly spread it. Which she had not. So, I don’t think it was very contagious. I took care of her and I never got it.
AIDS is a different story and AIDS and COVID have the most in common.
AIDS came into the American consciousness in 1981. I was twenty-three years old.
I was living in New York City. It was barely out of the 70s’. I was just into my own sexual freedom moment. OK, I’d been in it for a while, but those were peak years.
It started as a whisper; some gay men had this weird disease. Little was known about it. The fact the word gay was attached to it gave it an unfair stigma. And this was a time when gay men were just getting to let their newly designed gay flags fly.
But in that first year, unlike COVID that took four months to spread across the globe and kill over a hundred thousand people. A hundred and twenty-one people died of AIDS in that first year.
It started going up year after year after year and it continues to this day. No out and out cure has been found. But tests and cocktails of meds to keep one alive have taken away the death sentence it once had.
By 1983, we all knew people who had died of it. By 1993 it felt like half your Filofax had to be ripped out.
Gay men were dying by the thousands.
Just like now, we had a President who turned his back on the disease. He refused to even say its name. Homophobic- without doubt. God’s joke on him that his son is gay. I say good for God.
But Regan did nothing. And men kept dying.
Then it turned out you could get it from blood transfusions. Upper-middle-class white women and men started getting it. And famous athletes; tennis great Arthur Ashe being the first.
Transfusions became a source of infection. Blood. Fluids. Bodily fluids. But which ones? Did saliva have it or just sexually transmitted ones?
And then women were contracting it from sleeping with either bi-sexual men or men who slept with drug users. It turned out you could get it from a dirty shared needle. Drug users were big carriers.
I was talking to my friend Brucie about it the other day. Brucie is gay. I asked him what made it different. He said it felt like you had a scarlet letter on you. You were gay and you were dangerous. People stayed away. Just when part of the world had embraced gay men, coveted them, loved them, they were back to being shunned and shamed.
I was one of those people. A lover not a shunner. I have always preferred gay men to women. And in total transparency, cause that’s who I am – I slept with my share of gay men.
And believe me, it was years before I was convinced I didn’t have AIDS.
Every weird rash, every cold that felt strange or unfamiliar, a terror came over me. Did I have HIV?
Because like COVID it could live inside of you and you were asymptomatic – all bets were off.
Unlike COVID it could live inside of you for years and years without showing signs of infection.
There was a dark, horribly sad, covert, aura that hung over AIDS. People were afraid to admit they had it. Famous people who had it never owned it. If an unmarried man had Pneumonia in their obit it was code for he died of AIDS.
You’d walk around the Village and West Hollywood and see men of all ages who were once ripped and vigorous on canes, with the tell-tale lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma on their faces. But they usually had a friend or two by their side. Giving support. Helping them get through it.
Unlike with COVID they were not wrapped in plastic and taken off to die all alone.
AIDS was horrendous. It was a tragedy of major proportions. We lost some of our best and brightest.
But other than changing certain life behaviors nothing closed down. In 1984 they closed down the bathhouses and the gay sex clubs that were along the highway near the High Line before the overpriced condos went up. They took a while but they closed the ones in West Hollywood too.
People practiced safe sex. Condoms suddenly had a comeback.
But no restaurant closed. People could mourn together. Gather to bury their dead. They could go to the hospital and sit with their loved ones as they lay dying.
Bars were full, as were planes and hotels. People traveled and gathered and worked together to help the afflicted. and themselves. People covered for their friends who could no longer work. Life went on. It was darker and scarier but it did trundle forward.
Nobody was locked in their homes. Entire cities and countries were not shut down. Even people who had it, often worked until they had no strength left.
It was a terrible disease that continues to this day. But it was not like this pandemic.
The only real-life change I made was from 1986 -1988 I gave up sex entirely. Safe or otherwise. In 1986 the author Peter Mayle had his year in Provence – I had my two years of celibacy.
By then a young woman named Alison Gertz had contracted it from sleeping with a gay man in 1982. This was terrifying as she didn’t get it until 1986.
In 1980 I had the most handsome Brazilian boyfriend you can imagine. And I’m not just saying that. People would stare at him and follow us down the street. It was like being with a movie star.
But he came from this very fancy Brazilian family where being gay was not allowed.: Though he was.
I met him through a lively friend named Michael who would succumb to AIDS in the late 80s’ .
Michael always fought his weight, suddenly he was beyond skinny, he pretended to be on diets. He too had a hard time admitting his sexual preference. Many men were just getting a foot out of the closet and then AIDs came along and the brave ones marched and demanded a cure, the more fearful ran back into their closets and slammed the door. Michael was one of those.
Riccardo pretended to be the stereotypical Latin lover out of some 60’s movie; When he wasn’t in the village cruising. I did not date him very long.
But for years when I would see him sauntering down Madison Ave. with the perfect cashmere sweater tied around his shoulders and those Blue Grotto eyes shining, my first response was always, “I’m so happy! You’re still alive.”
By the time Magic Johnson announced that he too had it, it was an equal opportunity disease.
Magic proved a big healthy hetero athlete could have it. And no one who was alive then, and saw his press conference will ever forget it.
Magic Johnson had AIDS.
By then I was married. I had a child. But I had still never been tested.
Unbeknownst to me I was given an AIDS test when I was pregnant with Lucy in 2000.
That was the first time anyone said to me you are HIV negative.
I swear I was never convinced until that day. It always lurked in the back of my mind. Is that rash kind of weird?
But we all kept on living. We all kept on hugging. We all shared meals and trips and went to openings and museums and parties and celebrated the lives of those who left us. We were young and we danced into the night. Nothing was like what we are going through today.
The thing that feels like AIDS now is the daily tally of the dead. And the fact suddenly people you know either well or through their work or in passing and were alive two days ago are dead today.
My friend Robby Browne died on Saturday. Bobby’s birthday.
I met Robby in 1984 when he was on the Olympic Committee in California.
He then moved to New York and we had a casual friendship. He was one of the top real estate brokers in town. Whenever I would think we needed to buy an apartment I would call Robby and he would take me around looking. One day he looked at me and said, “Sweetie, you just can’t afford what you want and deserve. Keep renting.” So, we did. He invited us to his Halloween party and a Christmas event where he gathered thousands of toys every year for the needy.
Robby, like Bobby, was handsome, with a huge smile and time for everyone. He was likable and a shining light. He rode around town on a bike. Bobby rode around on a Segway. They both had golden labs.
Like Bobby, he was a very active member of the gay community. And worked tirelessly for HIV-AIDS. I learned in his obit that his brother died of AIDS in 1985.
I know they knew each other.
Robby died of COVID. He apparently was also fighting cancer.
Bobby, like I said, did not die of AIDS but of cancer.
Though they were both on the frontline of AIDS and Gay Rights for their entire adult lives, it was not AIDS that took them down.
I hope they run into each other in the afterlife as they will have a lot to talk about.
The world is a sadder place without both of them.