Longform

THE END OF THE LINE

Page 3 of 5

Gay physicians grew alarmed at the prospect of a truly dangerous disease insinuating itself in the bathhouse crowd, and they issued warnings at conferences in San Francisco and New York. But few members of the gay community were ready to listen.

The first time Ric was infected with a sexually transmitted disease, he didn't even know it. He was at the public-health clinic in Grand Junction for an ear problem when the doctor noticed a rash on his chest and hands: Ric had an advanced case of syphilis. The doctor left the examination room and sent in a public-health nurse, who was supposed to get the names of Ric's sexual partners in order to notify them of their possible infection.

"How many times have you had sex with another man in the past ninety days?" the young, red-faced nurse asked.

Ric hesitated. "Does that have to be accurate or can I approximate?"
The nurse seemed confused. "How about within two or three?"
"Um, well, then approximately 128," Ric answered. The nurse dropped her pen and rushed from the room.

Ric shrugged as she retreated. It wasn't like they were going to be able to notify his sexual partners, anyway. Most of them he didn't know by name. The anonymity of bathhouse sex was a big part of the attraction. Hell, the Ballpark had a "Glory Hole" room, with holes drilled into the walls so that a man couldn't see the person he was having sex with on the other side. Later, Ric joked with friends that he was a walking microbe factory. He settled into what had become a common practice for sexually promiscuous members of the gay community: blood tests every three months and a dose of penicillin when needed.

In 1980 Ric was diagnosed with hepatitis B, which left him feeling tired. He was warned that repeated exposure could lead to liver disease. Again he shrugged: Such was the price of freedom.

Ric didn't know it, but the party was already over. Two years earlier, three of his friends in San Francisco had come down with what a handful of doctors and researchers were calling "gay cancer." Within months the disease was identified as a syndrome that weakened the body's immune system, allowing the invasion of opportunistic infections such as Kaposi's sarcoma and pneumocystis carinii, the so-called gay cancer and gay pneumonia, as well as a dozen others. The disease rarely killed quickly, instead making small forays into the brain, the lungs and the bones and whittling away at life.

Soon Ric heard reports of other friends and former lovers succumbing in New York, Chicago, Key West and what seemed to be the entire West Coast. But no one could say with certainty what caused the disease or how one became infected.

In 1981 researchers with the Centers for Disease Control warned that the disease seemed to be following the same routes of infection as hepatitis B. That meant it was likely blood-borne and transmitted through sex and contaminated needles. Gay men who had been infected with hepatitis B were good candidates for this new terror, the CDC said.

By January 1982 the disease had a name: gay-related immune deficiency. A month later the CDC reported that 251 Americans had been diagnosed with GRID; 99 had died. In July the disease got a new name, to reflect the fact that it was no longer killing just gay men: acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. The CDC reported 471 cases of AIDS and 184 deaths.

In Denver's bathhouses, AIDS was a frequent topic of discussion for Ric and his friends, but no one seemed to know quite what to do. The Ballpark had begun placing a large fishbowl filled with free condoms at the front desk, requesting that its customers practice "safe sex," maybe even use latex gloves for fisting. But the fishbowl remained full. Instead of trying to prevent the spread of the disease, bathhouse gays fixated on the rumor that the government had finally found a way to get rid of all the queers.

Ric was getting worried. Even if no one wanted to admit it, it had to be the sex. And by his estimate, he'd already screwed a few thousand men from a couple dozen cities and countries.

"What if we started using condoms?" Ric asked a group of friends one evening as they were discussing whether the CIA had planted some deadly bug in the New York City subway system--a bug that preyed on homosexuals and minorities.

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Steve Jackson