I arrived at Naval Station Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, ready and eager to be honorably discharged, on March 18, 1980. I was lucky enough to get to spend two weeks in San Francisco before coming home to Chicago.
It was like being in Mecca for this young gay lad. I explored the area: cruising the streets of The Castro, taking pics of the sights like crooked Lombard Street in Russian Hill, tried to channel my inner hippie stoned out of my mind in Haight Ashbury, was confused by a sexy but wacky Scientologist at Twin Peaks, shared a cigar ( among other things ) on the Powerhouse patio, had a date at the Balcony, and spent a weekend in San Jose with a shipmate and his wifeall the while, reveling in all that was gay and bohemian and leather and trippy and free.
I was a sexy, horny 24-year-old Black gay man with an education and an agenda, on the edge of manhood and ready to start the rest of my life! I didn't know that there was a ticking bomb building up, set to start explodingand intent on changing life as I knew itin little more than a year.
I arrived back in Chicago on April 3 with an agenda: get settled in at home, get a job, find a place of my own, find a boyfriend and settle down. But first, I needed to explore the city and find my community. I jumped in feet first, and, in my first two weeks home, I had hit the Gold Coast, Dugan's Bistro, Club Baths, Broadway Limited, Sherrie's, Manhandler, Machine Shop, O'Banions, Redoubt, Alfie's and Man's Country.
I met people everywhere I went, and for the most part enjoyed being "fresh meat" while it lasted, Like I said, I was a sexy, horny 24-year-old Black gay man with an education and an agenda. As Annie Lennox would sing many years later, "Sweet dreams are made of this/Who am I to disagree?/I travel the world and the seven seas/Everybody's looking for something. Some of them want to use you/Some of them want to be used by you/Some of them want to abuse you/Some of them want to be abused." It was the culture of the times, and I fell into it. Fully.
Everything was great. I got a job. I got some hangout places. I ran into a guy I knew in high school, and Ray-Ray and I quickly became best friends. Through him, I met lots of people and made more friends. At the Pride Parade that year, I met a guy named David who was living with his boyfriend Paul, and I found myself in my first poly relationship. Through David and Paul, I met a sweet boy named Heath from Lincoln, Nebraska, that I was immediately smitten with. We began dating at the beginning of November 1980, but our romance was short-lived. In February 1981, lovely, beautiful, 22-year-old Heath would be the first person I knew to die of some weird, mysterious disease. It all happened so quick: He thought he had a cold, then a week later the flu, and then he was so sick he went to the ER and was admitted to the hospital. His parents and brother came, were informed that he had a rare pneumonia and, within two weeks, he had died. That fast.
Over the next couple of years, guys around me were getting sick and some where dying: guys that I knew intimately and guys I called family and guys I knew as friends and guys I kind of knew and guys I didn't know at all. Sick and dying or dead. And you started seeing fear in people's eyes in the bars and on the streets. First, it was one here, one thereincluding my first roommate, Jim. Then it was a couple. Then there were a few at a time. Then there was a bunch. And you noticed people held you less close, and never kissed you on the lips, and touches no longer lingered, and no one would eat off of your plate or sip from your drink.
In 1982, the CDC announced that this thing that was happening was to be called GRID. And more guys got sick, and some died, and more guys and more guys. And it hurt. Every single one of their deaths broke me ( and everyone else ) a little bit. In 1983, the first women were diagnosed with AIDS, proving that it was not a "gay disease," as some had declared. Then children were diagnosed, meaning it was passed on from their mothers. And, always, more guys.
By 1986, the notebook that I had used for a phone book since 1974 had notations about deaths on more than 50 entries. I stopped counting in 1987, when the 220th person I knew had died. And still they died. Then my ex, David died, and his partner Paul shortly after. The Western Blot test ( which detects HIV antibodies ) was approved, as was the AIDS drug AZT. By the end of 1987, 71,751 cases of AIDS had been reported to the World Health Organization, with 47,022 in the United States. It was also estimated that there were 5-10 million people living with HIV worldwide.
In 1988, Dec. 1 was declared as World AIDS Day.
In 2017, approximately 36.9 million people were living with HIV/AIDS. Of these, 1.8 million were children under 15.
An estimated 1.8 million world-=wide were newly diagnosed as being HIV+.
Approximately 38 million people have died from AIDS and complications of HIV/AIDS since the epidemic began. Many of them were my friends, my loves, my confidants, my mentors, my confessors, my family. I have lost more people than I care to count. Many of them were just on the cusp of being an adult and we never got to see who they would have been or what they would have contributed to the world. Others were wel-established doing great things and some did small things great.
Sometimes the faces get blurred, but I never forget them.
Joey McDonald is a community activist and advocate working toward full equality for all LGBTQ people.