On Oct. 15, 1982, one year into Ronald Reagan’s first presidency, his press secretary laughed at the AIDS crisis, which disproportionately affected gay men. In June 2015, in the landmark 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme court ruled same sex marriage legal and overturned any state bans. This new ruling for many, seemed like a step in the right direction as it allowed for the legal right to marriage of people like Kevin O’Connor, a Metz employee at New College. However, with the recent election of Donald Trump becoming a reality, many people are now struck with a sense of deja vu for a period they had already survived.
Although students who were raised for the most part under the Obama administration might be barely old enough to remember a President Bush, people of an older generation survived it. O’Connor remains positive we can survive the new wave of dissent as well.
“So how did I survive it? On a positive note. I didn’t. I was angry. But that was then and I think we’ll survive. Because I survived then and I survived George Bush. I can survive Donald Trump. Somehow,” O’Connor said.
In the 80s, President Ronald Reagan refused to even mention the AIDS crisis, O’Connor recalls. Press Secretary Larry Speakes turned the conversation into a joke by implying that the reporter who brought up the epidemic must have had it, according to Huffington Post.
“The gay men were stigmatized. They were traumatized. They didn’t know what to do, they didn’t know what was happening,” O’Connor said.
He recalls a narrative similar to many of the time of friends being scared to share dishes with a man with a Kaposi’s sarcoma – a type of cancer that develops in later stages of AIDS which was then known as “the gay cancer” – for fear of catching the disease they had little knowledge of.
“People would bring over their plates when they would have dinner with him and they’d take their plates with them and wash them because nobody knew at the time,” O’Connor recalls.
Other questionable activities involved any form of skin to skin contact, as people who did not understand the disease thought it could be transmitted through saliva, or tears.
“Mothers didn’t want me picking up their babies. People didn’t want to kiss you on the cheek. People certainly didn’t want to have sex with you, especially other gay people. It was very isolating and demeaning,” openly gay author Edmund White said in an interview with CNN.
President Reagan strongly influenced the so called Moral Majority, a belief that AIDS was a disease created by god to punish gay men, and did not acknowledge the AIDS crisis until the mid 80s. In combination with the American public’s view on the War on Drugs, created by President Nixon, the view of people with AIDS at the time was very negative.
In order to help prevent the spread of the disease there was a push for needle exchanges, however, advocates for this program such as Jon Stuen-Parker, a Yale School of Public Health student and former intravenous drug user at the time, were arrested for handing out needles on the streets. Recently, though, needle exchange programs have become more popular in the United States as a way to prevent the spread of AIDS.
However, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and former Indiana Governor was morally opposed to needle exchange programs in his state. After he defunded Planned Parenthood a crisis was created among low income residents of the state who could not get tested when Planned Parenthood closed. Governor Pence refused to acknowledge the problem. Eventually, Governor Pence agreed to help create a temporary needle-exchange program in 2015, which helped, according to The Huffington Post, but it came too late for residents already infected with the disease. Much like President Reagan’s public acknowledgement came too late for many gay men who also suffered from AIDS.
O’Connor recalls one way of getting through the crisis then was getting involved and coming together to help each other.
“My friends were part of an organization in New York – called Act Up – I was very much in support of it,” O’Connor said. “I worked for a group called the Gay Friends and Neighbors Incorporated. You know strangely enough early in the AIDS epidemic the most supportive group, which is not strange, was lesbians. We got so much help from lesbians.”
While many groups are coming together to try and fight a very strong push to the right from conservative Americans, the fight is only reactionary at this point and comes almost too late for many who had already been discriminated against. In 2013, the voting rights act of 1965 was torn apart in a highly unpublicized supreme court case, which many Democrats suggest was just the beginning of discriminatory hateful policies that allowed Donald Trump to become the next president-elect.
“The [Trump Administration] is frightening,” O’Connor said. “Especially for some of the people with rights that they have now earned. That they shouldn’t have earned that they should have had all along. It’s scary. I know the students here especially were very somber. The next day after the election was very somber on campus. It was really depressing. I know that the students were depressed. It was a horrible. Horrible evening. I was very upset.
“Will I lose my rights as a married gay man? Potentially. That’s pretty scary. I’ve only been married for one year. We got married on my mom’s birthday she was 87. We’d been together for 17 years. Just for me to lose that right.”
However, O’Connor remains hopeful that times are changing and the future is bright, especially among New College students.
“For your generation it’s gonna be really scary. But this is a great group of students. Hopefully you’ll use your voices to create change.”