Read This Twitter Thread About the ‘80s HIV Epidemic That Left Us in Tears

Read This Twitter Thread About the ‘80s HIV Epidemic That Left Us in Tears

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American journalist Tucker Shaw lived through the height of the HIV epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s during which 447,060 people died — basically the entire population of Miami, Florida; Oakland, California; or New Orleans, Louisiana. Last night Shaw posted a heartbreaking thread on Twitter after hearing a young man on a train tell someone else that the HIV epidemic had beneficial effects “in the long run” because it ultimately strengthened the LGBTQ community.

Shaw’s tear-jerking HIV Twitter thread has since gone viral, partly because of the emotionally expressive way it contrasts the young person’s coldly academic view of the epidemic with his own, as a queer man who actually lived through it.

As far as we can tell Tucker Shaw was born in 1968, meaning that he would’ve been in his 20s during the worst years of the epidemic. The number of American HIV deaths increased by about 3,000 or 4,000 each year throughout the ’80s and ’90s until the first successful anti-retroviral drugs came out in 1996.

And while it’s true that the HIV epidemic helped galvanize the queer community in ways that would help it fight for rights in the 21st century, that galvanization came at a great human and emotional cost that we should all remember.

Here’s Tucker Shaw’s HIV Twitter thread:

I overheard a young man on the train on the way home today, talking to another young man. Holding hands. In college, I guessed. About that age anyway. Much younger than I am.

He was talking about AIDS, in a scholarly way. About how it had galvanized the gay community. How it had spurred change. Paved the way to make things better, in the long run.

The long run.

Maybe he’s right. I don’t know. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the theory. He spoke with clarity and with confidence. Youthful, full of conviction. But.

Remember how terrible it was, not that long ago, during the worst times. How many beautiful friends died. One after the other. Brutally. Restlessly. Brittle and damp. In cold rooms with hot lights. Remember?

Some nights, you’d sneak in to that hospital downtown after visiting hours, just to see who was around. It wasn’t hard.

You’d bring a boom box. Fresh gossip. Trashy magazines and cheap paperbacks. Hash brownies. Anything. Nothing.

You’d get kicked out, but you’d sneak back in. Kicked out again. Back in again. Sometimes you’d recognize a friend. Sometimes you wouldn’t.

Other nights, you’d go out to dance and drink. A different distraction. You’d see a face in the dark, in the back of the bar. Is it you? Old friend! No. Not him. Just a ghost.

At work, you’d find an umbrella, one you’d borrowed a few rainstorms ago from a coworker. I should return it, you’d think. No. No need. He’s gone. It’s yours now.

Season after season. Year after year.

Tucker Shaw, the journalist behind the HIV Twitter thread that has left people in tears

One day you’d get lucky and meet someone lovely. You’d feel happy, optimistic. You’d make plans.

Together, you’d keep a list of names in a notebook you bought for thirty cents in Chinatown so you could remember who was still here and who wasn’t, because it was so easy to forget.

But there were so many names to write down. Too many names. Names you didn’t want to write down.

Your friends would come over with takeout and wine and you’d see how hard they tried not to ask when he was coming home because they knew he wasn’t coming home. No one came home. You’d turn 24.

When he’d been gone long enough and it was time to get rid of his stuff, they’d say so. It’s time. And you’d do it, you’d give away the shirts, sweaters, jackets. Everything.

Except those shoes. You remember the ones. He loved those shoes, you’d say. We loved those shoes. I’ll keep those shoes under the bed.

You’d move to a new neighborhood. You’d unpack the first night, take a shower, make the bed because it’d be bedtime. You’d think of the shoes. For the first time, you’d put them on. Look at those shoes. What great shoes.

Air. You’d need air. You’d walk outside in the shoes, just to the stoop. You’d sit. A breeze. A neighbor steps past. “Great shoes,” she’d say. But the shoes are too big for you.

You’d sit for a while, maybe an hour, maybe more. Then you’d unlace the shoes, set them by the trash on the curb. You’d go back upstairs in your socks. The phone is ringing. More news.

The long run. Wasn’t that long ago.

What do you think about this heart-wrenching HIV Twitter thread by Tucker Shaw?

This article was originally published in September 2018. It has since been updated.

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