It was New Year’s Eve, 1995. Essex Hemphill, Easy-E, and Glenn Burke had all died of complications from AIDS in the past few months. A shadow of death was all around the Bay Area. Still, life went on, at least for some of us in San Francisco. A few friends had gathered in an apartment to wrest whatever happiness we could from an end of the year celebration.
We later discovered that 1995 was the peak for AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. It claimed over 41,000 Americans that year.
I was a journalist in San Francisco at the time, and AIDS was raging. I became accustomed to losing people on a regular basis. My friend, filmmaker Marlon Riggs left us the year prior. He fought valiantly. I remember rubbing his feet as he lay in his hospital bed. It helped him relax. Singer Sylvester, who I once spent two days interviewing, was an even earlier victim. He died in ‘88, a time when the disease barely had a name.
Some of us who managed to live - the Baby Boomers who reached their thirties in the ‘70s and ‘80s, now call ourselves survivors. But with that survival also comes what psychologists call Survivor’s Remorse or Survivor’s Guilt. It is defined as “a significant symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It may be found among survivors of epidemics (like HIV) as well as survivors of combat, murder, natural disasters, rape, and terrorism, and it is found among the friends and family of those who have died (American Psychiatric Assn, DSM-5, 2013).” It may sound dramatic to say people who were lucky enough to avoid HIV as it raged through our communities suffered PTSD. But it was a dramatic time, when a simple sexual act could mean life or death.
Why did the virus strike some of us and not others? It’s important to realize how mysterious the epidemic was in its early days, even in regard to its name. “Gay cancer” and “gay plague” were common names in ‘82-85. For a very short time, G.R.I.D. was used, standing for gay-related immune deficiency.
The term AIDS was first used by researchers in 1982. That same year, Ronald Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speaks joked about the epidemic at a press conference. And it would be three more years before Reagan himself even mentioned the word, in spite of 13,044 deaths since ’82.
It was in this climate of ignorance, tragedy, ridicule and fear that we lived. At about this time we were told HIV was spread by bodily fluids, and that safe sex was the best protection. That information came too late for some. And still others preferred not to use condoms. In the adventurous post-disco days of the ‘80s it was often impossible to know exactly how you got the virus if you did, and how you avoided it if you didn't.
So friends, family and famous people continued to fall. Entertainers Jermaine Stewart, Fela Kuti, Howard Rollins, and my friend Sam Sanders were claimed by the virus in ‘96-‘97. So many people died that San Francisco’s black population fell from a historic high percentage of 9.0% in 1980 to 6.4% in 2010 (Haas Institute, UC Berkeley, 2019).
This had a devastating effect on social networks. Friends and acquaintances were falling on a weekly basis. At the same time, black men were also at risk from the threats of mass incarceration and the crack epidemic. In ‘98 Kamala Harris became assistant DA, in charge of prosecuting the “Three Strikes Law,” where people were given 20-to-life for shoplifting, for instance. The crack epidemic, the tough-on-crime trend, and AIDS together created a three-headed hydra that claimed the lives of thousands of young black men and women who were just starting their adult lives.
And yet, some of us survived and carried on, avoiding the “hydra.” We’ve had children, relationships, success, and disappointment. Survivor’s remorse encompasses “the psychological effects of living with the long-term trajectory of the AIDS epidemic and includes survivor's guilt, depression, and feelings of being forgotten in contemporary discussions concerning HIV.” Nothing in life can prepare you for living in a vibrant creative community of friends one minute, then quickly seeing those friends unexpectedly disappear, especially at a young age.
So, what lessons have survivors learned, and what wisdom can be passed on to younger generations? Protect your mental health. Therapy can be vital as a tool for maintaining a positive, healthy emotional state. Protect your body by making good choices with diet and exercise. A gym membership and a few hours each week with weights and cardio add up to stress reduction and healthy weight management. Finally, make new friends. On the path of a long life, old friends will fall to illness, relocation, marriage, misunderstandings, and a slew of other circumstances. Many people stop making new friends after college, even high school. One of the more significant aspects of being a survivor has been feeling the loss of friends I made in my 20s and 30s. Sadly, there’s no way to replace that history and intimacy.
A certain rapper famously said, “no new friends.” But, as a survivor, I can tell you: he has no idea what’s ahead.
Alex Langford is an author and filmmaker based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from the University of Michigan, majoring in Journalism with a minor in Film. Alex worked as a writer/producer for ABC-Disney, producing news segments for KGO-TV’s entertainment and sports departments. Later, he became an author, publishing two novels. Last year, he adapted his latest novel, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, into a full-length screenplay. It is a coming-of-age romantic comedy with strong themes of gender identity, LGBT and the meaning of love. Alex has produced a short film based on the screenplay, with the objective of producing the feature soon.