If you are LGBTQ and over 50, you’ve been in this movie before. If you are an ally of the same age—in health care or the funeral business, you’ve been here too. And Dr. Anthony Fauci? Well, here he is again, helping us sort out the science from the fear, delivering messages that no wants to hear but that everyone must heed. Heck, we even have a President who doesn’t want to acknowledge how bad things are, much less do anything timely about it.
I don’t know about you, but I’m already reading the obituaries every day looking for people who’ve died that I may know or know of. Reading between the lines to see if the cause of death was COVID-19. Wondering if shame and stigma keep families from acknowledging the truth. And shaking my head and feeling sad when I see people, particularly young people, not listening, not understanding, not obeying the warnings to change their behavior in order to curb the spread of the virus, to stay healthy and avoid infecting others.
Yes, it’s like déjà vu all over again, as baseball great Yogi Berra once said.
There’s no real good news about the coronavirus right now. I’ve got nothing good to say about HIV or AIDS either, but it did teach us a few things. First, we have to rely on community to get us through this. For the LGBTQ community in the late ’80s it was particularly hard, because many of us weren’t out and we had to build a community. Fast. And because our people were dying all around us, we took the risks, kicked open the closet doors, and built and embraced our chosen families in unprecedented ways. We were young, afraid and fighting for our lives.
We did the hard stuff. Nursed people we knew, and when they died, we kept building on what we learned and nursed people we didn’t know. We helped people with massively compromised immune systems survive isolation, unemployment, rejection, depression, and serious, mostly deadly, illness. We built organizations like Open Hand to feed people. Like ACT UP, which challenged Dr. Fauci, our President and anyone else who wouldn’t listen to us—until they did. Like multitudes of political organizations, urging them to start changing the leaders who, at best, wouldn’t help, and at worst, tried to punish us.
And a million of us converged on Washington to march for our lives. Get someone to tell you what it was like that day in 1987 when Pee-wee Herman’s word of the day was “OUT” and we all converged on the subway and saw each other in such numbers for the first time.
None of these actions stopped HIV or AIDS. But they changed us for the better. Our community emerged more connected, healthier, and better equipped to change our future for the better. If you didn’t live through this, now you know how we got here. A virus propelled us down the path to who we are now.
We have a responsibility to share what we know with the rest of the world. We understand the need to practice safe sex as well as physical distancing. We know that condoms and washing hands can defeat something we can’t see. We know that helping other people makes us better and stronger. We know we are going to lose a lot of people we love and some we don’t. It’s going to hurt. And the people who will hurt the most will be those most marginalized and isolated already.
We know that challenging the political status quo is necessary to replace the people who refuse to act on behalf of people and instead exploit this crisis for politics and personal gain.
Start with yourself. Change your behavior. Stay home. Wash your hands and wear a mask. Get your friends to do the same. Then start reaching out. Make some phone calls. Check on people and see how you can help. Use our considerable creativity and connections to teach the world what we learned 40 years ago about conquering a virus.
Follow the lead of Rep. John Lewis and make “good trouble.” Do the easy stuff first—participate in the census so we get our share of public health dollars. Register to vote so you can help turn Trump, Kemp, and others out of office. Get your absentee ballot and cast a vote in the primary on June 9. A high turnout will send a message to our Governor, the President, and political leaders up and down the ballot that the reckoning is coming. We have a responsibility to take what we know and make a better world out of it. Create the kind of community that you want to see when we all emerge, blinking in the light, with bad hair, (COVID-)19 extra pounds, and the opportunity to hold and behold one another again.
Cathy Woolard served on the Atlanta City Council from 1998 to 2002, and was President of the Council from 2002 to 2004. When she began her term, she was the first openly gay elected official in Georgia history, and she was the first woman to be President of the Council.