What Being a Child of the AIDS Epidemic Taught Me About Coronavirus

This piece is part of a series on Autostraddle exploring the overlaps and divergences between the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic — many AIDS survivors have spoken out meaningfully about both the echoes of their previous experiences in the current moment, and the critical differences between the current pandemic (and the urgency of response) and the previous one and ways in which they can’t be compared. We want to highlight what there is to learn from elders and survivors of the AIDS epidemic, now and always, and to remember that HIV/AIDS and the state’s failure to support those living with it it is an ongoing reality globally, not a distant past.

Like a lot of adults that were once children living on the margins, I learned to cut and paste the photo negatives of memories into highlight reels, clip show episodes, bloopers, Vine comps — digestible bits of a life that keep some fictional audience entertained, but more importantly, comfortable. Who that audience is, I never really know, but I fall in love with personalities often enough to know I’m not crafting the feverish daydreamy Please know me right fantasy edit we all do, but something mundane, obligatory. Like a shortcut that makes the task of knowing me efficient and unobtrusive.

The audience, it occurs to me, like most things we accept as the blank default, is probably white.

So when I piece together the story of a too-loud, too-large Puerto Rican family crammed around a small wooden table in a narrow kitchen protected by the bright yellow walls of my childhood, the camera pans around my dad delivering the punch line of a joke, my uncle howling, tapping his beer bottle with the ring on his thumb, dancing to music no one can hear but him. And my aunts, grandmother, mom, and Godfather are mirthful from eyes to mouth, taken by my father, and as if charm was linked by blood, taken by his little brother moving to a tune whose rhythm is nothing like what’s on the stereo. Which is on full blast. Which is either playing Marc Anthony or Bachata Mix 1990-something, featuring Marc Anthony. The kids, all of us, are a smattering of ages in a scatter of places — on laps, under tables, over chairs. Dominoes litter the table, from a game that just ended or a game about to begin. And that’s where the memory ends. Fast forward. That’s enough childhood for someone to get the gist.

No one sees my dad notice that a plastic cup he’d been using was moved. No one sees his eyes dart back and forth between kids scattered in the room — who would put their mouths on anything, who would drink just about anything out of anything — and the cup. The clip ends before he lets conversation take over and walks away to obsessively sponge down the cup in the kitchen sink. Then stays there, as plates, cups, forks, spoons, everything makes its way back, playing the best kind of host — one who doesn’t leave room for offers to wash dishes. The clip ends before his mood meets the air — a dark, sad, worry, that hours from then will explode into an unrelated angry outburst. It’s uncomfortable, and not mine, this moment, so no one needs to sit with it, not even its witness. What right do I even have, having burned it into my brain so vivid? Snip.

The retroactive story often told of collective life in the US leaves out a distinctly dark undertone of the late ’90s — that of a population of people carefully emerging from the dark, shaking with the uncertainty over whether the monster they are afraid of is gone, really gone, eyes never quite adjusting to the light. It was a time where AIDS was no longer automatically considered a terminal illness — sometimes. It meant certain cocktails of medication were effective and attainable-ish, though nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, and diarrhea were more a certainty than a “side effects may include” label on pill bottles would have someone hope. A new generation, though it didn’t yet know it could be a generation, were living with AIDS, and living as HIV+ people, but living having had their nose stuck viscerally into the ways they could and might die. It meant there were suddenly many stories in the country that began with pneumonia and ended, for the lucky, with a diagnosis that made people hate and fear them. And for people of color in the Bronx, that story is more common than any of us will admit. Because if it happened to someone you loved, who made you who you are, did it really even happen to you?

It meant a lot of adults in my life had their own cups, never licked the same ice cream cone, never let me stand less than six feet away if they got so much as a paper cut. Not because they were overly cautious, but because no one knew, with certainty, that AIDS couldn’t be transmitted via small amounts of saliva, or intimacy, whatever a person determines is “too much.” Some myths are born of fear. Many are born of hate. Some are born, simply, because it is safer to believe that something which makes sense, however one turns a thought over in their mind, must be fact. There is danger in the unknown. And so there is fear in just the label: “unknown.” At least a myth repeated enough feels familiar.

I was raised by people living under the shadow of many myths.

So how jarring it is, to be a queer adult in 2020, finding the snippets of these memories I thought culled from my story and buried places I thought I’d never return. The spread of Covid-19 is just one among many things queer communities across the nation have had to fear, but it’s the ways in which those fears are taking shape that draw comparison to the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An illness for which there is no vaccine has already put hundreds and thousands in the hospital. The government, under-prepared, leaves victims in the lurch. Lives are lost, or upended. A marginalized group is blamed and victimized for the disease and its spread. And people, not yet knowing with absolute certainty every action that can prevent the spread, do what little they can that is known to prevent it. For queer millennial and beyond, the broad strokes of this narrative are our inheritance. And how singular it is to inherit something from the role-models and kin so many in the queer community, starving for community, never got to have.

It’s also a comparison I, and many queer people, have qualms about. Because it is different, this history so many have had to shave out of their life story, while others hunger to know more intimately. Unlike AIDS, Covid-19 runs little risk of making someone’s sexuality public. It does not (yet) so neatly serve as an example of cosmic “punishment” hatemongers can turn to when looking for evidence that queer identity is meant to be punished. But just like AIDS, it is spreading through a nation entrenched in white supremacy, already being twisted into an excuse for xenophobia. And like many on the margins now, just like those living through the AIDS crisis, I can feel the greater toll coming in the wind.

I am lucky. I’m spoiled for what many queer individuals spend a lifetime searching for (and greedy, I still wish for the big brother or sister that could have made me feel less alone). I had and have tangible queer role-models. I have also had queer and straight loved ones diagnosed with AIDS. Their stories are not mine, but the lessons are. If I have learned anything from the survivors who raised me that could prepare me for this very, very different pandemic today, it’s to fear for the most marginalized affected, because they will be hurt the hardest and forgotten the fastest.

It is no coincidence that low-income black and latinx communities have proportionally been most affected by HIV and AIDS, while the most sympathetic portrayals of people living with AIDS in pop culture have historically been white cis-gendered men. There is a reason the faces of our greatest triumphs and tragedies are white-washed, reimagined in cis and abled bodies. Marginalized people do not just edit down their memories and histories for the comfort of those in power. Those in power edit memories and histories down into what comforts them most.

Worse, the greatest lesson I’ve learned from what may generously be called my queer ancestors, is the hardest to swallow: No one is coming to save us but ourselves. That, more often than not, for those with power, our suffering, and even our deaths, are convenient. Even the organizations whose symbols we wear proudly today in the ’80s and ’90s were just people, often in the margins, terrified, not knowing what to do. ACT UP, whose work is the shadow so many queer youths in New York live in, did not begin knowing exactly what they were facing when they began facing it. They knew the myths, and the fear and hate and maybe-facts that gave birth to them. And they did what little they knew they could do.

When I think about the months and years spent as a child doing homework in hospital waiting rooms, eating stale vending machine Pop-Tarts as someone dear to me struggled on the precipice of life and death, in the years the word ‘terminal’ rose up too many throats like bile, I didn’t feel gratitude for a president or an institution, but for the friends and family who advocated for that person in the hospital bed — someone they knew on the margin, not knowing yet what precisely could save any of them, but knowing what simple facts they had: that the illness killed a victim’s hunger. That, when the end comes near, because they had seen it too much, its beginning often looked like a wasting away.

Today, because even having queer role-models doesn’t erase homophobia, transphobia, or white supremacy, I don’t have much in the ways of a queer community. Not in physical space. It takes work and bravery to seek that community, and to make it more visible by being a part of it. And it can be hard to feel visible. It can feel dangerous to be visible. It is, in many ways, dangerous and brave to be seen. I don’t lament my invisibility, but it does mean so much of the queer solidarity I’ve felt has been online. And when I think about the queer people that raised me, I think most of their journeys to find one another, and what a miracle the internet looks like from this end of history. I think, in facing a pandemic, it’s one of the strongest tools we have that they didn’t. We are the only ones that can save us, and we have little idea of what we can do, but we’ve never been able to reach each other more easily.

The Venmo money we pass back and forth, the self-care and contact we share online, the networks we make of people, using the tools they have to do what they know they can, are what we need now. After bitter fights with my brother, my mother would say: “Be better. All you have is each other.”

The visual for wasting away, for those on the margins — of poverty, of race, of gender, and many times, all three — looks so much like starvation. And in the private highlight reels of my life, the image of community will always be kind faces sneaking in pints of ice cream through hospital doors, delivering dime bags of pot with the reverence of a homemade casserole. It’s not my story, but I am its witness. And this is what I’ve learned:

All we have is each other. And we are the only ones we know, if we believe in the myth of ourselves enough to create truth, who will save us.

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Audrey Olivero

Audrey Olivero is a Puerto Rican writer and editor from the South Bronx. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Carve, and Dovecoat Magazine. She has named every pigeon she's ever met. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram.

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