It was the first warning of the nightmare ahead: On July 3, 1981, the New York Times reported on a rare form of cancer affecting gay men. “Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made,” the article said. The Centers for Disease Control noted that no cases had occurred in women or heterosexual men.
The news shook Washington’s gay community. Some read the article over morning coffee in their Capitol Hill offices. Others heard about it during power lunches on K Street. The illness became a hot topic at the bars near Dupont Circle.
Yet no one could have fully grasped what the Times article foreshadowed. “Nobody read this story and thought this was the end of life as we knew it,” says Michael Manganiello, who works in health policy. The next year, the CDC gave the disease a new name: acquired immune deficiency syndrome—or AIDS.
As the epidemic unfolded, Washington became a focal point for activists demanding a stronger response from the federal government and the medical community. The disease devastated many who lived here—not just gay men but women and straight men as well, including many who had been infected through intravenous drug use.
Today DC has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the country, on par with many parts of Africa and only slightly below the peak infection rate of San Francisco in 1992. What follows is a look back on 30 years of AIDS, in the voices of many who were—and still are—most directly affected.
"I Had the Symptoms"
Initially, AIDS wasn’t as visible in Washington as in San Francisco and New York City. But that changed as the number of people with the disease grew.
Sean Strub (founder of several publications and Web sites, including Poz, a magazine for HIV-positive people): “I felt numb inside when I was reading the New York Times article. I had the symptoms: night sweats, weight loss, swollen lymph glands. I just knew it had something to do with me.”
Hilary Rosen (a political consultant who was the first lobbyist for the Human Rights Campaign Fund): “The early publicity was about New York and San Francisco. The guys who’d been to those two places were thought to be the ones at risk. Then Washingtonians who were in political jobs or worked with political figures started to be diagnosed. You couldn’t separate the shame of being gay from the shame of being diagnosed.”
Riley Temple (Lawyer and activist): “It seemed as if AIDS was nascent in Washington. Then suddenly it was everywhere.”
Sean Strub: “When the epidemic hit, a community emerged in New York City. It was different in DC—it was smaller and built around the Whitman-Walker Clinic. I remember DC being very closeted and gossipy.”
Lou Chibbaro Jr. (Washington Blade reporter): “AIDS became a main beat for us. We even had a section of the paper called AIDS Digest. We reported news about AIDS that the mainstream press wasn’t focusing on."
"I Thought of Them as Ghosts"
By the end of 1985, the CDC reported almost 16,000 AIDS cases nationally, up from 452 in 1982.
Dr. Jane Delgado (president of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health): “I came to Washington because my best friend since I was 16 lived here. He was the first person I knew who got sick, and I took care of him until he died. People didn’t want to be in the room with him. They didn’t want to bring him food. A frustrated doctor said to me, ‘I went into infectious diseases because you can treat them. If I’d wanted to see people die, I’d have gone into cancer.’ ”
David Messing (Whitman-Walker board chair): “In the ’80s and early ’90s, when you got a diagnosis of AIDS, it was a death sentence. I remember visiting my friend Walter Owen in the hospital and having to wear gowns, latex gloves, and face masks.”
Septime Webre (artistic director of the Washington Ballet): “I remember carrying my best friend down the steps to his parents’ Suburban so they could take him home to Texas to die, which he did six weeks later. Toward the end, he went blind. I went to the funeral. His father was a prominent businessman in town. It was a Baptist service, and no one would mention AIDS.”
David Messing: “I’d be out shopping or doing errands and see people I came to think of as ghosts, wasting away and covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. I’d recall what they looked like when they were healthy, handsome men. I’d see them in a social setting looking well, and two months later they were walking with canes, 50 pounds lighter.”
David Mixner (civil-rights activist): “There was one two-year period when I did over 90 eulogies for friends under the age of 40. It was funerals every Saturday.”
Richard McCann (American University literature professor, coeditor of Things Shaped in Passing): More ‘Poets for Life’ Writing From the AIDS Pandemic: “Those times were simultaneously medieval and modern. It was like living through the black death of the Middle Ages, but you also went home and had a Mr. Coffee and a microwave.”
John Berry (director of the Office of Personnel Management, the highest-ranking openly gay official to serve in the executive branch): “When I met my first partner, Thomas Leishman, I fell in love at first sight. On our first date in 1985, Tom said, ‘I’m going to tell you something, and if you have any qualms I’ll understand, but I have this disease.’ I remember thinking this would be a really stupid reason not to love somebody, and that’s what I said. In June of 1996, he passed away at age 37. From 198 pounds of solid muscle, his weight at death was something like 83 pounds. I saw firsthand the cost of this.”