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The New York Times

June 6, 2013
Five Plague Years

Disease is always an intrusion, an indignity, an assault, a devastation. And if the new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, “AIDS in New York: The First Five Years,” were about any other epidemic, that is what it might evoke. Here is how influenza or polio or the Ebola virus manifested itself. Here is how it was identified and fought. And here are the scars it left behind on the living.
But the photographs, magazine covers, posters, documents, artifacts and videos at this exhibition recall a time, just over 30 years ago, when a disease seemed to burrow deeper than mere death, transforming a city.

The exhibition begins with a world of pleasure, represented by images of the exuberant sexual openness of the 1970s, including photos from Plato’s Retreat (a sex club of the period) and of the male sunbathing pickup scene on Pier 48, on Manhattan’s West Side. One doctor, cited in accompanying text, said, “It was party time for everyone, heterosexuals as well as homosexuals.”

Then came disease. The exhibition celebrates some early heroes in the medical profession, like Linda Laubenstein and Joseph Sonnabend; identifies its villains, including the conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who saw the disease as divine retribution, and some New York City agencies that failed to react quickly enough; and mourns its victims, who, in some of the photos here, are wasted, disfigured, on the verge of death.

Finally, a section of the exhibition called “The End of the Beginning” includes the identification of H.I.V. (The exhibition credits the French team at the Pasteur Institute in 1984.) In a yellow carrying case, nestled in sponge, are eight small plastic bottles: a 1985 Abbott Human Lymphotropic Virus Type III EIA Kit, the first test that could screen for the virus.

But the curator, Jean Ashton, in gathering material from the historical society, the New York Public Library, New York University, the National Archive of LGBT History and private collections, gives this familiar narrative an important turn. Despite some flaws, by focusing narrowly on a particular place and time and not trying to survey the disease’s larger history, the exhibition shows how virulently AIDS tore at the city’s social and political fabric from 1981 to 1985.

There are handwritten “surveillance” sheets from the city’s Municipal Archives, tabulating infections by race and age, “working with groups who until the late 1960s had been treated like criminals.” There is a hospital document setting out guidelines for dealing with “specimens from AIDS patients” (“extraordinary care must be taken to avoid accidental wounds”). And there are video excerpts from the 1985 premiere of Larry Kramer’s acerbic, bitter play about the time, “The Normal Heart.”

In the early years of the plague, we are reminded, AIDS puzzlingly appeared in what was widely called the Four H’s: homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs and Haitians. Victims also included children (and a companion exhibition, “Children With AIDS: Spirit and Memory,” with photographs by Claire Yaffa, is running concurrently at a gallery down the hall).

But the concentration of gay men among the ill was evident from the start. Beginning in the late 1970s doctors began to report unusual spikes in sexually transmitted diseases in gay populations. Then once rare cancers, like Kaposi’s sarcoma, along with pneumocystis pneumonia, started to appear and wreak havoc.

Lawrence Mass, one of the early New York physicians to recognize a problem, contacted the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta in April 1981 to inquire if rumors of a gay disease were true; the rumors were denied, and we see the text from an issue of The New York Native from that May in which Dr. Mass reassures readers. But by June the problem was acknowledged in the Centers’ publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, also on display.

But there was still nothing tying many of these illnesses together. Another doctor who had recognized the onset of these medical issues, Donna Mildvan, was sitting at lunch with a colleague when they realized, she said, that the infections they were discussing “resulted from immunocompromise.”

“We had no idea of how this would develop,” she says in an interview quoted in the exhibition, “but we were scared.”

So, among a group that had only recently begun to taste the possibilities of openness, including some who had indulged in that freedom with abandon, there came this disease that assaulted that very way of life, attacking not just the body but the core of a nascent identity — and ultimately challenged sexual license.

But in those early years no one was sure how it was spread. Early suspicions that the syndrome was contagious and that sexual activity aided its transmission were resisted by many gay men. As later became clear, the disease’s long latency, with symptoms not appearing until almost a year after infection, meant it also could be spread unawares. Moreover, the disease’s early association with homosexuality (AIDS was then known as GRID, for gay-related immunodeficiency) heightened prejudices among the wider public. Uncertainty about the nature of the condition meant that even ordinary cautiousness about contagion could easily veer into avoidance or worse.

At the exhibition the health-care advice of the time is quoted: “ ‘I was told not to use the Laundromat,’ reports one woman who remembers well the confusion of these years. ‘Who cuts your hair?’ another was asked by her doctor. In June 1983 the executive director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association urged members to adopt a 60-day moratorium on embalming AIDS victims.”

The exhibition treats this as a form of hysteria, but that assessment should be tempered. In 1983 it was not clear how the virus spread. Some fear may have even been rational; health-care workers had, after all, become one of the groups widely infected with hepatitis B.

Still, there was good reason to believe that some resistance to allocating funds or attention or newsprint to the onset of AIDS was because of homophobia. The exhibition also points out, “Medical and public health professionals at the New York City Department of Health were among the first to detect the AIDS infections, yet the city was slow to respond to the crisis.” It thus tends to side with Mr. Kramer, the activist and writer who, among others, blamed Mayor Edward I. Koch for not doing enough in the early years.

It would have been helpful, though, if the exhibition led viewers to better understand the level of uncertainty and ignorance about what was happening. Public policy proposals — requiring blood banks, say, to screen donors, or posting warnings in gay bathhouses (or closing them) — were challenged by blood banks and gay leaders because at the time suspicion exceeded proof about the disease’s transmission. And suspicion seemed a recurring sensation among all drawn into this tragedy, not least among the dying.

So much has been written about AIDS that it would have also have been helpful, despite the exhibition’s title, to step back from the hysteria and desperation of those early years. How did reactions to AIDS compare with other epidemics in history, which have always been associated with alien social intrusions: Jews with the Black Death, immigrants with influenza?

And more too might have been included in an epilogue: perhaps something about recent signs of a possible cure; or some inkling of the enormous impact of drugs in the mid-’90s that are holding the virus in check; or some discussion about the current world pandemic, with tens of millions infected.

But despite its limitations, the exhibition brings to life a period when AIDS began to infect not just the body but the body politic. And it ends with the death of Rock Hudson on Oct. 2, 1985, when “knowledge of the epidemic moved from the margins of society to a wider world.” By the end of that year 3,766 New Yorkers had died of AIDS, just a bit more, we learn, than the number of new infections diagnosed in the city in 2010.

Follow Edward Rothstein on Twitter; twitter.com/EdRothstein.

“AIDS in New York: The First Five Years” continues through Sept. 15 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, at 77th Street; (212) 873-3400, nyhistory.org.