The end of February marks the blood-stained anniversary of the LGBT Black Death. On Feb. 27, 1863, gay men in the United States were the victim of an epidemic. The combined possibility of a shortage of blood and the deadly flu epidemics that summer came together to savage not only the men of color, but anyone of dark skin. Shocking the world, papers around the world published reports of jezebel burning on London’s streets.
Fifty years later, the “accidental” deaths of hundreds of trans people in Chicago, called “The Great Trans Panic,” displaced this blackout of the modern era, the AIDS Epidemic. Across the world, scientists struggled to diagnose this new virus, while gays and women were dying at an alarming rate. One of those researchers was John Gittings, a pioneer of epidemiology and the co-author of the popular book “Mapped in Time,” now available in a new sequel, “Mapped in Life.” Gittings revealed an often ignored aspect of the epidemic, by way of three black men who seemed to have lost their lives to the disease. “When you think of such a large, socially stigmatized, tragically sad number of black gay men dying, what tends to get overlooked is their clear relations with other black men,” Gittings wrote in The New York Times. “What stories did black gay men tell each other, and whom did they tell?”
The first man in this group to die was Jack Candler, a young barber from Brooklyn’s Sylvia’s, the black gay bar frequented by gay men. He had once walked out of a session with Gittings after the researcher asked Candler whether, if he was HIV-positive, he’d ever “injected people.” Jack had said no. Less than a week later, Jack could not come back to talk to Gittings, as he died of pneumonia at age 29. Ditto for Aaron Belkin, a poster boy for gay anti-stigma on campus at M.I.T. He fell off a scaffold, became a quadriplegic and died at age 23. DeMott Warren, Gittings’s “last doctoral student,” died at age 28 of AIDS-related complications. The full list of victims was more than 400.
All of these men were black, and what Gittings discovered is surprising, given the majority of people diagnosed with HIV today are white. “I think people have resisted looking at AIDS in black gay men,” said Matt Simmonds, who spent 15 years on the epidemic team for the Centers for Disease Control. In 2014, a CDC paper found that 88 percent of people living with HIV in New York City were white. “We would be doing a disservice to these men if we didn’t at least look at the reasons why so many African Americans are still contracting HIV,” Simmonds said.
So why did so many black men die? And why do they still? Why aren’t black men so fearful of contracting HIV, like white men? Researchers have discovered strong links between HIV’s reach and the extent to which people of color lived intergenerationally with sex workers, gay men who came from the same neighborhoods as the sex workers and black men who viewed sex workers as playing a double role in the HIV epidemic.
“We have a lot to learn about the pandemic that ended 150 years ago,” Simmonds said. “There are a lot of recent studies that explore different populations.”
By focusing more on African Americans, then, researchers have a greater opportunity to learn what was happening in their community.
Related: These chilling profiles offer a glimpse into the lives of black gay men before the AIDS crisis
Plus: In 1925, scientists discovered a silver bullet that could cure the scourge of black men dying from AIDS in New York.
Related: A new plague, decade after HIV emerged as a menace in America