According to Berkowitz, this claim turned him and Callen into pariahs, as many viewed the intention of safe sex as a form of placing the blame of the epidemic on promiscuity, an already heavy stereotype of the gay community at the time.
“The problem with some activists was that once we suggested that the lifestyle had something to do with AIDS, they hid behind the disclaimer that no one knew what was causing AIDS, but that it was probably a virus,” claims Berkowitz.
For Berkowitz, a lot of the denial and defiance witnessed in the COVID-19 era reminds him of the opposition he faced against his advocacy for safe sex practices in the gay community.
“Unfortunately, just like there were sex radicals that thought HIV was a conspiracy to take away their sexual abandon, now we have people refusing to wear masks because they think this whole thing is a conspiracy to undermine their freedom,” he explains.
“Our point in the pamphlet was that even if you were exposed to the virus, protecting yourself – and your partners – from other STDs would protect all gay men’s immune systems and make it more likely that we’d be able to fight HIV for a longer period of time.”
Social quarrels aside, just like HIV, the coronavirus’s biggest victims are marginalized, at-risk communities. The CDC estimates that, in comparison to white people, African Americans are 5.3 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 infections, while being 1.4 times more likely to die from the disease.
Some states illustrate the racial disparity in a bleak manner: in Louisiana, African Americans form just 32.8% of the population, yet 49.38% of all COVID-19 deaths.
“Anyone can get HIV or COVID-19, but these diseases target vulnerable groups,” says Dr. Grelotti. “We worry that people with HIV might be more at risk for COVID-19 because COVID-19 and HIV share many risk factors, which are often social in nature, not biological.”
After months of recurring outbreaks, there is little hope in sight that the US is beginning to flatten the coronavirus curve. With the public anxiously awaiting a vaccine or at least effective forms of treatment, Berkowitz cautions against betting on a magic pill. He cites early HIV activists’ promotion of the medication Azidothymidine (AZT) as an example of a well-intentioned cause gone awry.
“When ACT UP took to the streets to lower the price of AZT, how did they know it would do more good than harm? As it turned out, AZT was a disaster for many gay men who took it. They were prescribed double the correct dosage and the study that the approval was based on was completely flawed and rushed to get to the drug market.”
In a time of hopelessness and fear, the overprescription of AZT unnecessarily led to many preventable deaths in HIV patients.
For people like Kallmeyer and Berkowitz, living through a second pandemic has been a thought-provoking experience, one that has opened wounds that never fully healed.
“This abject fear that society is feeling right now will probably go on for another six months, and then it’ll subside,” says Kallmeyer. “What everyone is feeling right now was going on for the gay community not for six months… but for six years. It was just this gloom and doom for six years, with no cure in sight.”