Period piece ‘1985’ shows how the art of losing is hard to master. 

Watching 1985, the first year of Ronald Reagan’s second term disassembling the federal government, I remembered that my uncle Lelio, who changed his name to Andrew but whom we knew as Tata, joined the Army as a grunt and was sent to Korea, a move kicking off a cycle of peripatetic travel during which he contracted the HIV virus whose complications killed him a decade later. Continue reading

Regarding belief in the rule of law

A couple of items stood out this Sunday morning. First, prompted by a friend, I checked out the Trump administration’s national AIDS policy. Thorough and impressive, right? As thorough and impressive as seeing the categories of victims in Trump’s World AIDS Day proclamation. Not a single mention of gays, lesbians, and intravenous drug users. It’s all of a piece for people who loathe identity politics, writes Masha Gessen:

One might imagine that Trump’s totalitarian instincts are so strong that he—or whoever is writing his speeches—knows to hollow out the words that refer to death and human suffering, rendering them anonymous. Certainly, this process appears to be intentional. But there is probably a simpler explanation. Most likely, to the ear of the current Administration, any mention of a specific group of people—Jewish, gay, bisexual, transgender, young, black, Latino, and many others—smacks of identity politics

“Those unwilling to connect imagination with empathy most insist on the execrable term “identity politics” — as if “identity” were a discrete entity allergic to and formed away from politics,” I wrote about the bracing new film BMP (Beats Per Minute).

Meanwhile Dahlia Lithwick’s “Is It Too Late for Robert Mueller to Save Us?” laments what will be the Trump administration’s most damaging legacy: the delegitimating of the rule of law:

I’ve been thinking that America is operating along two parallel legal tracks. On one track is the chug-chug of law and order, as embodied in the Mueller investigation. On the other is the daily mayhem and denialism and circus-performing of the present White House. I tend to worry that with every passing day, the circus is training us to ignore, discredit, devalue, or disbelieve what’s happening on the other track. By the time the Mueller train gets to its final station, the norms that would ordinarily lead to impeachment proceedings might be tiny piles of yellow legal pad–shaped cinders. And then it really would be time to take to the streets.

Eloquent but naive. For millions of black and queer Americans, the thought that justice is unequally dispensed keeps their parents awake at night already.

How to cope past the plague years

From the director of How To Survive a Plague comes a booklength narrative about AIDS. Andrew Sullivan’s review:

This was not a long, steady march toward success. It was a contentious, sprawling, roller coaster of dashed hopes and false dawns — a mini-series where major characters suddenly die and plot twists shock. Nine years into the fight against H.I.V., the average survival time had increased from 18 months . . . to 22. As late as 1994, after more than a decade of organization and activism and research, the activists had split between centrists and radicals, and the new class of drugs, protease inhibitors, were failing in early clinical trials. Worse, the deaths climbed in numbers year after year. AIDS was not an early crisis that finally abated; it was a slowly building mass death experience. The year with the most corpses in America was 1995. The darkest night really was just before the dawn.

Anyone born after 1980 can’t know how fear of contamination affects our ssxual habits, especially when plague victims fell around us.

‘An obscure knack – commemorating World AIDS Day

Despite the progress, so millions dead, including my uncle. Thom Gunn, one of the twentieth century’s great elegists, wrote some of the sharpest and most shattering poems about AIDS, many collected in the epochal The Man with Night Sweats. Here’s “Still Life”:

I shall not soon forget
The greyish-yellow skin
To which the face had set:
Lids tights: nothing of his,
No tremor from within,
Played on the surfaces.

He still found breath, and yet
It was an obscure knack.
I shall not soon forget
The angle of his head,
Arrested and reared back
On the crisp field of bed,

Back from what he could neither
Accept, as one opposed,
Nor, as a life-long breather,
Consentingly let go,
The tube his mouth enclosed
In an astonished O.

Raise a glass.

Homosexuality in the Reagan administration

1/18/1983 President Reagan during a meeting with Rupert Murdoch with Charles Wick Roy Cohn Thomas Bolan in the Oval Office

The Reagan White House, reports Steve Weisman as quoted by Charles Keiser, “was definitely a place where you would hear one staff member call another staff member ‘a fag’ behind his back.”

he Reagans came from a Hollywood milieu that had always embraced discreet homosexuals; that was probably the reason for their occasional displays of enlightenment. Besides Rock Hudson, Nancy Reagan’s gay friends included the decorator Ted Graber, who supervised a $1 million renovation of the family quarters at the White House. After Mrs. Reagan’s sixtieth birthday celebration, her spokesman confirmed that Graber had spent the night at the White House with his lover, Archie Case. Graber was also a frequent guest at state dinners, as was the ubiquitous Jerry Zipkin, the New York socialite and marathon walker of wealthy women.

The story of the co-chairman of the president-elect’s inaugural committee shows the extent to which publications used code to refer to gay men and women:

Coded references to Mr. Gray in the New York Times included descriptions of him as a “a trim, precisely groomed man” and a “perennial bachelor noted for his charm and connections.” In New York, the gay power broker Roy Cohn boasted of his influence within the Reagan White House, and his law partner, Tom Bolan, became head of the screening committee for federal judgeships in New York State. Six autographed pictures of Reagan decorated Cohn’s office, including one inscribed, “With Deepest Appreciation for your Love and Support.” On New York op-ed pages, Cohn wrote of Reagan’s “generous nature, great warmth and reluctance to inflict personal hurt.” In some ways, Cohn was the ideal gay friend for the Reagans, because he was not only deeply closeted but also publicly self-hating. Asked about the persistent rumor that his ballet dancer son, Ron Jr., might be gay, the presidential candidate said in 1980, “He’s all man—we made sure of that.”

Apparently chief of staff and treasury secretary James Baker wasn’t trim and precisely groomed enough for thew New York Times.

One of the forgotten subplots of the Reagan years involved characters for whom the subordination of sexuality to duty and manhood bloomed in the form of Oliver North’s grotesque sentimentality. But in the circles of Carl “Spitz” Channell the homosexuality was overt: North’s chief fundraiser died of AIDS. Christopher Hitchens’ “The Hate That Dares Not Speak Its Name” delineates the depth of the gay money-power nexus in the mid eighties, and Thomas Hallon’s superb recent novel Finale features a protagonist who is National Security Council aide, a Richard Nixon spy, and a closeted man having an affair with a young man in the Channell circle. It worked, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, both ways: gays could suppress their sexuality beneath the carapace of machismo and the machismo exacerbated the lying.

Roy Cohn is another story.

‘Their deaths have left me less defined’

Only James Merrill rivaled Thom Gunn as a chronicler of male gay life in the late twentieth century. In 1992, the British poet published a slim, remarkable volume called The Man with Night Sweats about living with HIV. I love “The Missing” because it acts as an envoi to the long gay summer of living and fucking between the Stonewall riot and the first reported case of what was known as GRID in the summer of 1981: friendship animated the living and fucking (“We had too much time to find for ourselves,” Neil Tennant sang in “Being Boring”). Andrew Sullivan of all people wrote best about the no man’s land between friendship and eros in which gay men inhabit, with equal parts frustration and joy. In “If Love Were All,” he writes: “What gay culture really is before it is anything else, before it is a culture of desire or a culture of subversion or a culture of pain is a culture of friendship.” It is only when the gay child finds this first friend, he goes on, that he can really exist at all. Gunn understands (“Supple entwinement through the living mass…’).

Let us hope for a time when we don’t commemorate World AIDS Day.

Now as I watch the progress of the plague,
The friends surrounding me fall sick, grow thin,
and drop away. Bared, is my shape less vague
—Sharply exposed and with a sculpted skin?

I do not like the statue’s chill contour,
Not nowadays. The warmth investing me
Led outward through mind, limb, feeling, and more
In an involved increasing family.

Contact of friend led to another friend
Supple entwinement through the living mass
Which for all that I knew might have no end,
Image of an unlimited embrace.

I do not just feel ease, though comfortable:
Aggressive as in some ideal of sport,
With ceaseless movement thrilling through the whole,
their push kept me as firm as their support.

But death—Their deaths have left me less defined:
It was their pulsing presence made me clear.
I borrowed from it, I was unconfined,
Who tonight balance unsupported here,

Eyes glaring from raw marble, in a pose
Languorously part-buried in the block,
Shins perfect and no calves, as if I froze
Between potential and a finished work.

—Abandoned incomplete, shape of a shape,
In which exact detail shows the more strange,
Trapped in unwholeness, I find no escape
Back to the play of constant give and change.

–Thom Gunn
“The Missing”

The Ron ‘n’ Rock Show

Buzzfeed’s well-sourced account of how the Reagan administration rejected a dying Rock Hudson’s request for a transfer to a military hospital in France hoping to get better treatment is better as a record, complete with documents from the Reagan Library and NSC of how an administration idled as long as possible; it’s also further proof that conservatism and compassion can co-exist, specifically in the person of C. Everett Koop, the only Reagan apparatchik to emerge with glory from this pathetic chapter.

When Koop drafted Reagan’s remarks for the dinner, he wrote, in part, “It’s also important that America not judge those who have the disease but care for them with dignity and kindness. Passing moral judgments is up to God; our part is to ease the suffering and to find a cure.”

Within the White House and throughout the administration, though, many conservatives vigorously disagreed with Koop’s report and recommendations. Regularly, those with anti-gay opinions ruled the day. For Carl Anderson — then a special assistant to Reagan who worked in the White House Office of Public Liaison and now the current Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus — such language was completely unacceptable.

“It’s also important that America not reject those who have the disease, but care for them with dignity and kindness. Final judgment is up to God; our part is to ease the suffering and to find a cure,” the president told the room.

No one knew the subtle language change that had taken place. It is first being reported now as a result of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C.’s investigation into the Reagan Presidential Library’s holdings.

The official, if unstated, White House position was that those with AIDS should not be rejected — but could still be judged. Final judgment comes from God, but Americans could pass moral judgments in the meantime.

Speaking of anti-gay opinions, future White House communications director Pat Buchanan sneered in 1983, “The poor homosexuals — they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution.”Because the Reagan White House erected such a wall of impenetrability and hence “deniability,” however, I couldn’t draw the conclusion that Ron and Nancy left Hudson to rot at the behest of their and their backers’ moral revulsion, and I’m not persuaded by ACT-UP’s Peter Staley’s Bob Hope analogy: “President Reagan personally intervened to assist a fundraising effort led by Bob Hope.” By 1984 gays had a part to play in Democratic Party politics — gay men and women are mentioned in 1984’s party platform — yet I find it difficult to believe Walter Mondale would have responded with greater alacrity (I can believe that he would have said the goddamn acronym though). The most heinous bit I don’t remember reading in Lou Cannon’s essential biography: that the Reagan administration’s ’85 budget proposal called for a “$10 million cut in AIDS spending down to $86 million” (italics mine). A cut as the gay cancer turned into an epidemic.

But I relish the bit in Tony Kushner’s Angels Over America when the newly diagnosed Roy Cohn points to a phone and barks to his doctor:

Roy Cohn: No. I have clout. Lots. I pick up that phone, dial 15 numbers, and guess who’s on the other end of the line? In under five minutes, Henry.

Henry: The President.

Roy Cohn: Better — his wife.

And Hope was a barrel of laughs in the early eighties too, according to one of Chris Geidner’s links: “On July 4, 1983, he entertained at a charity benefit aboard the Trump Princess in New York Harbor and ad-libbed a line he had just heard in the men’s room: ‘Have you heard? The Statue of Lib­erty has AIDS. Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hud­son or the Staten Island Ferry.'”

Blood makes noise

Community blood banks stalk students as they leave buildings. Hot dogs, popcorn, and movie tickets are among the boodle. These banks sell the blood to hospitals. I would prefer the Red Cross itself taking my blood. “Would” because I haven’t given blood in over ten years. Since the discovery that HIV can lead to AIDS in the early eighties, the Food and Drug Administration has prohibited gay men from donating blood. Finally, a change:

Gay men who’ve abstained from sex for one year would be able to donate blood in 2015, ending a lifetime ban for the gay community, under a proposed FDA policy change unveiled Tuesday.

The current lifetime ban by U.S. Food and Drug Administration states dates back to 1983 and forbids men who have had sex with men from becoming blood donors because the group is “at increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B and certain other infections that can be transmitted by transfusion,” the FDA has ruled.

But the FDA is now seeking a change in that policy and would allow such blood donations based on an independent expert advisory panel’s recommendation, the agency said.

The proposed change would align the one-year deferral period “with that of other men and women at increased risk for HIV infection,” the FDA said.

I used to lie — what was my discomfort next to genuine need? I dated a man who spent 2002 and 2003 lobbying the feds to change the policy — I used to tease him. Then I was proud to be a dick every time a blood bank employee approached outside the student union building. “Sorry, man. I’M GAY,” I’d spit. Without fail the employee would paw at the ground like a sheepish colt and mumble an apology. It wasn’t their fault. They followed a policy that assumed straight men and women would catch HIV because the blood supply wasn’t screened properly.

But I suppose you’re not gay if you haven’t had sex in a year.

The politics of HIV

Catching HIV is one of the last worries on the mind of the young gay men I meet. The virus that can turn into full-fledged AIDS killed millions of men and made a generation of survivors wary of sexual contact. Now we learn that in Florida patients who need drugs pay higher co-pays:

The Affordable Care Act ended denial of coverage for preexisting conditions and, with the opening of the healthcare marketplace in October 2013, people with HIV/AIDS could enroll in health insurance for the first time under the ACA.

But an analysis by the AIDS Institute of Florida’s silver-level health plans found that the four companies placed HIV and hepatitis drugs in their highest formulary tiers, meaning that people who need those drugs must pay the highest out-of-pocket costs for them. According to the study:

• CoventryOne places all HIV drugs in Tier 5 of its formulary, requiring a 40 percent co-insurance after a $1,000 prescription deductible.

• Cigna also places all HIV and hepatitis drugs in Tier 5 with 40 percent co-insurance after a deductible ranging from $0 to $2,750.

• Humana places all HIV and hepatitis drugs in Tier 5 with a 50 percent co-insurance after a $1,500 deductible.

• Preferred Medical places all HIV drugs and all but two hepatitis drug in a Specialty Tier requiring 40 percent co-insurance.

In each case, most or all of the drugs require prior authorization.

Because these victims are often the poorest, they have no advocates; like the rural victims of the mindless dicta which bans states like mine from receiving the ACA’s Medicaid expansion or who make too much over the poverty line to qualify for federal aid anyway, they’re in limbo.

AIDS vaccine: “We’re trying to get a magic bullet”

A possible breakthrough with an AIDS vaccine:

The vaccine developed by Stone and his team can prevent mice from becoming infected with HIV, he said, by targeting a specific receptor in the immune system to trigger a significant T-cell response to the virus.

The receptor is called CD40, and the vaccine uses a special form of the receptor’s natural binding protein to enable the immune system’s dendritic cells to signal the presence of HIV.

“We’re trying to get a magic bullet,” Stone said, “that can bring information about HIV to dendritic cells.”

Unlike standard vaccines, which use untargeted antigen to generate an immune system response, the approach developed by Stone and his team attaches an HIV antigen to the binding protein, which then generates the better immune response by targeting the antigen to dendritic cells.