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‘If Only I Could Make Friends As Fast As They Go’

by Martien Sleutjes in History & Politics , 12 July 2018

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 6 minuten

From July 23 till July 27, scientists, policy-makers, activists and politicians will travel to Amsterdam for the largest global health conference: AIDS 2018. They gather for the twenty-second time to discuss solutions to end this global epidemic.

Dam SquareWith IHLIA LGBT Heritage, we look back on the first decades of a crisis in which strange infections, collectively referred to as AIDS, put an end to so many young lives.

‘Year Zero’

In 1996, Mister of Health Doctor Els Borst is responsible for a breakthrough in the fight against HIV in the Netherlands: a subsidy scheme for combination therapy. The use of medicine with a single compound proofed ineffective in combating the virus. Rightly so, resistance was a word that everyone feared at the time.  

The true miracle of the combination therapy was that, in most cases, no resistance occurred. The diagnosis of AIDS could now become a thing of the past, and living with HIV possible. 1996 was “Year Zero” of living with HIV, in which a number of people literally rose from their death beds. In the meantime, these medicines made it possible that, in case of unsafe sex, people with HIV on therapy can no longer infect other people.


How different life was before Year Zero! To the outside world they said: “Don’t panic,” as is evident from a 2004 book by Annet Mooij, but in the meantime gay men certainly did panic... as Chris Verboog, one of the people behind the magazine “Homologie” and Gay Studies, wrote in a 1987 column: “Being under the weather is no longer an option. Nowadays as a gay person, you can no longer feel ‘a bit sick’.”*

In a column on MVS Radio in 1989, “Hoe was het daar nou met aids?” (How was it there with AIDS?), he answers the question everyone at the time was asking about gay life in cities such as San Francisco. The situation was miserable: people begging, an AIDS tent camp, people everywhere with AIDS petitions, wheelchairs in bars. “You could not ignore it. Fortunately not.”

We should not want to ignore it. San Francisco showed him that besides compassion, unbridled hope remained: hope for better therapies, hope for more money for research, etc. And that gave us courage: “The courage to fight and enjoy life as long as possible. The courage to speak openly about your condition and to be visible, not to withdraw from life before your demise. That is the situation of AIDS in San Francisco. Terrible, actually. But still, for these reasons I would advise everyone to go there, with or without AIDS.”*

Black Marker

Terrence, or Dolly Cooke, was an Englishman living in Amsterdam. He died of AIDS in 1992 and donated his archive to IHLIA. What started as an art project to visualize networks in the gay scene became a record of his struggle with and fight against this horrible virus. In his journals, which are now stored in the archive, he marked the death of his friends on the pages with a black marker. In the first week of March 1986 he lost his best friend from Amsterdam, then followed by his best friend from London. On May 6th, 1987, he noted at the top of the page: “Steven Holts dies (V.S.P.) so another sex partner goes. If only I could make friends as fast as they go.”

To escape the consequences of AIDS as a gay person was impossible. If AIDS did not occur in your circle of friends, there were always acquaintances of friends or well-known people from the scene who were lost to AIDS. Meanwhile, the feeling that the government reacted too little too late became ever stronger.


Larry KramerGay men did take responsibility. They had fewer sex contacts and massively started using a condom. The enormous decline in the number of sexually transmitted diseases gave scientists the signal that they had to persevere. Whenever authorities wanted to tackle AIDS with repression or exclusion, for instance through border control, science would have itself heard. The 1992 Amsterdam AIDS Conference, for instance, was actually meant to be held in Boston, but entry restrictions for people with HIV made this impossible.

The gay movement itself did not sit still either. Directly or indirectly, it encouraged scientists and authorities to take action. This was a lot easier in the Netherlands, but still: we needed to act. In the USA, the gay movement was less strong and hardly organized nationally.

There, the most militant campaign group was set up in 1987, ACT UP, AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, founded by notoriously “difficult man” Larry Kramer. Kramer could live off the money he had made with movie scripts and therefore was independent. In 1981 he had pioneered the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. He quickly became the “angriest man in the world,” as being angry got him more results than being reasonable.

ACT UP campaigns were feared, also by allies. Just watch the French film “120 BPM” (2017). However, ACT UP also attracted people who wanted to know everything about the virus and what could be done about it. Thus, the group was also keeping scientists sharp.

Thanks to the success of the combination therapy, people not only stayed alive, but also dared to live again, to make plans. As there is no vaccine against HIV, it continues to spread. To make a start with putting a permanent stop to HIV, every person with HIV in the world should be treated. How complicated achieving this truly is, becomes clear from the difficult and ongoing fight against other STDs. However, giving up in despair will bring us nowhere.)

Various activities will be organized within the scope of the conference. IHLIA and the Amsterdam City Archives (Stadsarchief Amsterdam) for instance will pay attention to the disease through their exhibitions.

IHLIA Exhibition ‘Melange’

“Melange” is an exhibition of photographs by Ajamu (London) and Pato Hebert (New York and Los Angeles). It’s part of Ajamu and Hebert’s ongoing photographic-archival-aesthetical conversation, which first began in 2016 when Ajamu was a Curatorial Resident at Visual AIDS in New York.

Ajamu’s “Portraits and Praxis” is a series of portraits taken at the 10 Years Bold activist space organized by the Global Forum on MSM & HIV at the conference in Durban. Over the course of a week, eighty sitters came through the studio to converse with Ajamu and have their portraits made. “Melange” showcases a selection of these vibrant portraits.

Hebert’s “Ataqueridas” is a photographic series made in 2016 in São Paulo, Brazil. Hebert’s intimate images convey the power of a dance competition designed to claim public space in the contested urban core of São Paulo.

 The exhibition is on display from July 25 until September 30, 2018, at
IHLIA, Central OBA, third floor, Oosterdokskade 143, 1011 DL Amsterdam.

Stadsarchief: AIDS in Amsterdam 1981-1996

Late 1981. A man with strange symptoms is admitted to the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam. Doctors do not know what to do and the man dies. It is the beginning of a period in which the disease AIDS quickly spreads.

There is no cure. Only in 1996 does it become possible to repress the virus in patients. The exhibition “AIDS in Amsterdam 1981-1996” shows images from that period. The photos show fear and sadness, but also love and the strong will to survive.

 The exhibition can be visited from July 6 till September 2, 2018, in the Central Hall of the Amsterdam City Archives, Vijzelstraat 32, 1017 HL Amsterdam.

* These quotes are taken from the book publication of collected columns by Chris Verboog, “Waarom is dat een homobraadpan? Columns 1980-1992,” Amsterdam: Schorer, 1993 (page 42 and page 71).




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