This week’s edition of the News-Press includes a retrospective commentary by our friend and erstwhile contributor Robbie Barnett in which he describes his first venture at age 20 into a gay bar in Norfolk. It’s a deft and colorful account and constitutes our contribution to the celebration of this LGBTQ Pride Month even as still only baby steps are being taken to open society back up after 15 months of lockdown needed to protect against the horrid proliferation of the Covid-19 virus that has claimed over 600,000 U.S. lives so far.
There is an irony in that number of fatalities, because it almost matches the number of lives lost to the AIDS epidemic that ravaged mostly LGBTQ populations between 1981 when it was first publicly detected and 1996, when the signal was given that its virtual 100 percent death rate began being successfully mitigated by a cocktail of drugs.
It is hard to grasp the impact on the LGBTQ community that AIDS had during that 15 year stretch of time. When someone woke up to find a small purple sore on their neck or leg, it was an irreversible death sentence. The runup to any death involved terrible disintegrations of the bodies and minds of its victims, plus the social stigmas related to it, including from family and friends of victims often forced “out of the closet” by the cruel HIV virus itself. It was in an era when being LGBTQ was not at all popular. It was in fact reviled by the vast majority in the U.S. and as recently as 2004 George W. Bush’s re-election campaign capitalized heavily on such attitudes in the general public. It took LGBTQ activists themselves to turn the tide, first against the federal government’s lack of interest in finding an effective treatment for AIDS and second, on changing popular attitudes about LGBTQ lives in general.
It must not be forgotten that America’s recent hero spearheading the anti-Covid-19 effort, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was also the most visible and active proponent in the public health establishment for finding an effective treatment for AIDS. And, he’s the first to affirm that it was the “ACT UP” activism of LGBTQ persons that lit a proverbial fire under the public health establishment at the time.
Young Robbie Barnett, who is not a native of Falls Church but has a couple good friends who are, was a beneficiary of that struggle, “coming out” in the early 2000s to both enjoy life as a gay man relatively free of old stigmas and hatreds, and to make important contributions to our society as a whole.
The message in Robbie’s retrospective in this issue is the importance of “safe spaces” for LGBTQ and other vulnerable populations to relax, take personal inventory, and make enduring friendships.
We need more of such spaces. They’ve been diminishing, but we hope that post-pandemic, folks will remember how important they are.