Statement for World AIDS Day 12/01/21

by Larry Mass

When the first AIDS cases were reported in1981, we felt overwhelmed, to say the least. We weren’t sure what we were dealing with. Was it an STD? Multiple STD’s? Biological warfare? What was certain is that whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be good for the still fledgling gay liberation movement.

We had no civil liberties and were only a few years out from having been declassified as having a mental disorder, a decision many psychiatrists resented and were working to repeal. Prior to that time, gays were subjected to shock treatments, lobotomies, aversion therapies and prison sentences in efforts to “cure” us. If you wore drag in public, even on Fire Island, you could be arrested and sent to prison. If you were “found out,” you were usually fired from your job and disowned by your family. Murder and suicide rates were off the charts. Such was the era of The Lavender Scare, the first documentary to tell the story of the greatest witch hunt in American history and the brave, pioneering activists who spoke out in protest.

The odds against us were in fact overwhelming. Yet, somehow we stepped forward. With the example of the earlier Gay Liberation and Civil Rights movements, a small group of us began writing articles and informational fliers, stuffing envelopes for small-scale fundraisers and setting up a hotline for referrals and assistance. In fits and starts we became a collective we embracingly called Gay Men’s Health Crisis. This was our crisis and we knew we had to begin by owning it.

From its inception, we were attacked from within and without. Yet we persevered to become a leading resource of AIDS education, research and supportive services.

In the early period of AIDS there was a lot of denial and panic. Many people didn’t want to deal with the bad news. The worst part was the uncertainty of the cause(s) of the epidemic. It would be 3 more years before HIV was established as the primary agent in AIDS, albeit in the face of ongoing denialism. Meanwhile, the blame game went into high gear and never lost momentum.

Eventually, as a result of heroic activist efforts, effective treatment became available and the epidemic seemed transformed. Riding an unprecedented wave of public favor that yielded major advances for gay rights, we were unprepared for the drastic reactionary implosion of this progress in the wake of the Trump presidency and the global turn to authoritarianism.

So where do we go from here? With our own recent and proud example of AIDS activism to inspire and empower us, we go forward just as we did before, when the odds against us were even worse.

Not like far-right extremists but like ourselves in the early days of AIDS, when we’re hit hard again, as now, we need to double down, step up, act up, and fight back.

Pseudoscience, disinformation, intimidation and violent punch-back-harder reactivity are not our game. What is our game is civil disobedience, perseverance, resilience, thoughtful responsiveness and the courage of grace under fire, of knowing the justice of our cause and the willingness to fight for that justice in what the Republicans like to call “the long game.”

No time is right to stand back from AIDS challenges. Despite extraordinary gains, AIDS still impacts millions of people globally, especially the disenfranchised and underserved. We still don’t have a cure, nor a preventive vaccine, two supremely worthy goals GMHC and ACT UP co-founder Larry Kramer pushed for continuously.

Though ACT UP is no longer in high gear, we can all take heart and inspiration from its experience and example.

We tend to think of ACT UP as this fiercely courageous army of warrior activists that did front-line, life-and-death battle; as heroes who, despite the David-versus-Goliath risks, won levels of achievement and glory without precedent in the annals of grass-roots health care activism, medicine and science.

While all of that is true, the reality of ACT UP, as captured by Sarah Schulman in speaking about her book, Let The Record Show, on the history of ACT UP, is that the philosophy that powered the organization, beneath its shouted-out and justified anger, was its attitude of humility and tolerance, of encouraging and facilitating everyone to do what they could individually as well as collectively.

It’s a concept that goes back to Teddy Roosevelt: Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Whether you’re a Larry Kramer, Maxine Wolfe, Peter Staley, Phil Wilson, Sarah Schulman, Kelsey Louie, Judy Peabody, Krishna Stone, Osvaldo Perdomo or that shining light of World AIDS Day, Brent Nicholson Earle, do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

We don’t have to be stars of activism and service to make a difference. We just have to care and be willing to try. Much of what has been achieved has been modest, behind the scenes and unheralded, efforts that bind and reinforce those that can seem more decisive.

If there is one lesson we’ve learned from it all, it’s that no victory is too small.

That victory can be anything from just showing up to a meeting, to making a call, sending an email, speaking out to a friend, family member or colleague, to running a marathon, joining the AIDS Walk, or riding your bike for AIDS awareness and funding.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, the takeaways are the same.

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

No victory is too small.

— Larry Mass, World AIDS Day, 12/01/21

Lawrence D. Mass, M.D. is a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and was the first to write about AIDS in the press. He is the author/editor of the anthology, We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer.