(The following is a personal recollection, and in no way is intended to be historically precise or indicative of anyone's experience but my own.)
The rumor was that poppers caused something that was being called "gay cancer". The strange lesions appearing on gay men's bodies were a gay man's worst nightmare. They were disfiguring and made you an instant pariah. No one wanted to be around someone who was so obviously infected with a very strange disease.
Kaposi Sarcoma was the first visible signs of what was later called HIV/AIDS. Kaposi Sarcoma is an opportunistic disease, a virus, that attacked people with compromised immune systems but for me and my friends it was just "the pox".
The other outward sign of the nascent disease was the profound weight loss due to sustained diarrhea and intestinal problems. People just wasted away, growing thinner and thinner until that looked like fragile old men hobbling along the street with the aid of walking sticks. Combine this with the pneumonia that was also running rampant and everyone who looked the least bit thin, or sickly or frail was suspect and an object of fear.
Fear. That was the dominate emotion that drove the community back in the early days of the disease. We were afraid we could be next. Every bump, every itch, every cough could be the first signs of what proved to be a fatal disease with no treatment or cure.
It didn't take long before the disease had a name, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS. Soon research showed it was a blood borne pathogen and the culprit was exchange of body fluids. Mainly sexual contact or transfusion with infected blood. People with visible signs were no longer shunned and friends rallied to their side to provide comfort and assistance.
Long before the medical community figured that out, my friends and I had begun to ignore the warnings to avoid contact with people infected with the disease. Our hearts drove us past the fear and we visited our friends in the hospitals and took care of them when nursing staffs would not. Yes, some hospitals staff refused to have contact with AIDS patients in the early days. They would wear masks, gowns and gloves and do only the bare necessities of care.
I guess we figured we might end up infected anyway so what the heck? How could we watch our friends die alone and shunned. It was a soul searching time for me and most of the people I knew.
That was 29-30 years ago. So much has changed, but not fast enough to save so many friends. So many good men and women died in the early days and with them a little of my own soul died as well. Facing mortality is a bitch!
Today, there are many treatments that extend the lives of people with HIV and full blown AIDS cases are not nearly as common as before. Still there is no cure. 30 years and no cure! Treatments that lengthen lives are great, but why no cure? I am impatient and want to see this thing end before I do.
No, I don't have AIDS. Why I do not know, just lucky I guess. Still I have been scarred by the disease like all my friends who survived the 1980's. We all still feel what it was like deep in our souls and will never forget.
Treatments are wonderful things, thought most are very expensive. Cures are even better and I pray that research will work toward that cure so that someday we can look back on the epidemoc and say, that was a really bad time in our history, glad it's over.