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Host of 'Making Gay History' reflects on coming of age during the AIDS crisis

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When Eric Marcus was about 30 years old, he wrote a book called "The Male Couples Guide to Living Together." It came out in 1988, when there weren't too many gay people in the public eye. So on his book tour, he answered a lot of personal questions, like when Eric told an interviewer that he and his partner had never been tested for HIV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC MARCUS: There's a battle back and forth on that. And the fallout from finding out that you're positive, HIV positive, is so damaging so often that we decided it's easier to live with the thought in the backs of our minds that we are negative and practice safe sex than to live knowing that we were positive.

SHAPIRO: Eric Marcus unearthed that tape from 1988 for a six-part audio memoir, "Coming Of Age During The AIDS Crisis." It's the latest season of his podcast, "Making Gay History." Eric Marcus, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MARCUS: Delighted to be here. Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We're going to zero in on just one part of one episode of this podcast, when you and your partner Barry got your first HIV tests. In 1988, when you told that interviewer that you had never been tested, what medical resources were there for people who learned that they had HIV?

MARCUS: In 1988, there was one drug that was demonstrated to be effective, marginally, for people who were infected with HIV and had AIDS, and it only was demonstrated to extend life maybe a few months. And it was highly toxic. About 50% of the people who were given AZT couldn't tolerate it.

SHAPIRO: So there was almost no upside to learning you were HIV positive.

MARCUS: (Laughter) There was...

SHAPIRO: There was almost nothing you could do if you found that out.

MARCUS: There was virtually nothing, yes, except for - and that's actually why we got tested, that he was my then partner, and I had read in Scientific American about how this drug could extend life. But other than that, there was nothing you could do other than take good care of yourself and maybe meditate.

SHAPIRO: So you and Barry finally decided to get the test, and instead of going to your doctor, you went to a clinic where you could be anonymous because there was still so much stigma around HIV. And at the time, it took three weeks to get results. What was that wait like?

MARCUS: It was the longest three weeks of my life. When I found my datebook from that time, I marked the day when we got our results D-Day because it carried such weight. I was surprised to find that. It was November 30 of 1988.

SHAPIRO: So we're going to zero in on that day - November 30, 1988, when you went to the clinic to get your results, and you met a social worker named Solveig Simonsen, who you tracked down all these decades later for the podcast and relived this day. And I want to play listeners a few minutes of this, and then we'll talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MAKING GAY HISTORY")

MARCUS: So I remember going into your office. You smiled. You showed me - indicating where I should sit, and I sat next to your desk. You had the file on your desk. You opened the file. And as you were doing this, it was like a movie to me because suddenly I couldn't hear anything except the blood rushing through my ears and my heart pounding. And the color left the room. It was terrifying. And you opened the file. I can see you opening the file. And you looked down, and you smiled, and you looked up at me. And you said, you're negative. And I almost fainted. The sound came rushing back. The color came back into the room. And I didn't cry, but I was giddy. You had handed me a little slip of paper. It said Solveig.

SOLVEIG SIMONSEN: Yeah, I know. And it was written by me. It was my handwriting.

MARCUS: So it said Solveig, and it had my number.

SIMONSEN: Yeah.

MARCUS: 'Cause it was anonymous testing. And I thanked you, and you wished me well. And I left your office and went down the hall back to the lobby. And there were lots of people sitting in plastic chairs, and then there was Barry. We're standing there. We don't know what each other's results are. And we start giggling. And that's when we realized we were both negative. But then there you were over my shoulder, and you said to us, come with me. You took us to the end of the hall. You took each of our hands, and you held our hands, and you said, I deliver terrible news every day, all day, and I just want to share in a moment of happiness with you. That's why I've remembered you all these years. It was so human of you and so beautiful and so meaningful. And I've never forgotten you.

SIMONSEN: Wow. Thank you for sharing that. I don't remember that, but I am so glad that I did that. I am so grateful for all the people like yourself that I tested and that I had the opportunity to connect with. I feel privileged that you allowed me. It's such a vulnerable thing. I mean, it's intimate.

MARCUS: Yes, standing in that hallway with you, with you holding our hands, it couldn't have been more intimate. Yeah.

SIMONSEN: Yeah, yeah. And letting me into your lives, you know, giving all this information that I'm asking behind closed doors. You don't know me and being able to be vulnerable, to tell me.

MARCUS: Well, I got lucky that I got you.

SIMONSEN: And I was lucky I got you.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMONSEN: I was, like, blown away by this whole thing. Who knows, you know, like, how we affect people or what - we don't ever know - how fortunate I am to know that I did something that was meaningful.

MARCUS: It was so meaningful. It's such a vivid, pivotal moment in my life. And you were there, and I'm grateful to you for that.

SIMONSEN: I'm so grateful. Now I don't ever want to let you go. I want to stay (unintelligible) forever.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: That's Eric Marcus talking with Solveig Simonsen, who gave him the results of his first HIV test in 1988. And, Eric, how do you reflect on that experience all these decades after she made that impact on your life?

MARCUS: Two things. Completely filled with anxiety listening to that story unfold.

SHAPIRO: Really?

MARCUS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. And then it's - and then crying all over again.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MARCUS: It's a lot to get teary over one's own memoir, audio memoir. But...

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: I think a lot of people got teary over that tape just now.

MARCUS: But it was - I was going to live. I didn't start thinking about saving for retirement until I got those test results. I was 30.

SHAPIRO: The AIDS epidemic is not over, and so how do you think this podcast about coming of age in the early days helps our understanding of the present day?

MARCUS: There was so much focus on people like me during the AIDS crisis, of white gay men, that we forget about the other people who were affected by it. Black women of a certain age, even during the early days, were among the people who were most affected and infected by HIV, as well as heavy drug users, people - hemophiliacs and others. But it has - the AIDS epidemic has changed over time, and so much so that it's mostly out of our consciousness. So I hope that this series that we have produced reminds people both of the past - what happened, how this disease unfolded - and that this is an epidemic that isn't over. It's 40 years on; there is no vaccine. And I'm a little embarrassed to say that, for me, it has been easy to put it back in my memories. But now that I've revisited my memories, it's very, very present.

SHAPIRO: Eric Marcus, his series "Coming Of Age During The AIDS Crisis" is the latest season of his podcast, "Making Gay History." Thank you very much.

MARCUS: Thank you so much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK AND SUBLAB'S "ISOLATED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.