The first cases of AIDS were reported in 1981. The first HIV test didn’t arrive until 1985.
By this time the virus was decimating generations of gay and bisexual men. People often died following lingering and debilitating illnesses that robbed them of their dignity.
As the early days of the epidemic recede into history, it inevitably becomes harder for younger generations to grasp the horror of those times. Nowadays, if you are on medication and have undetectable levels of the virus in your blood, you are unable to transmit it to others. You can expect to live a long and full life.
It’s hard to remember the fear that many felt around the virus in the early days. People thought you could catch HIV through kissing or simply touching someone with AIDS.
When gay couples discovered that one of the partnership had HIV in the 1980s or 90s, it was devastating. Death was an assumed certainty. Many relationships buckled under the pressure. For others, sex would never be the same again.
Colin Bailey, now aged 78, remembers being in this predicament all too well.
Born in Britain in 1940, he emigrated to the USA in 1968. He earned a living as a consultant in the fledgling computing industry. He met his partner, Julio, in 1978. Colin was 37 and Julio 24.
‘We didn’t have Grindr back then,’ says Colin via a Skype call from New York. ‘It was basically a sex pick-up in a public toilet’ – or ‘tearoom’ as they’re dubbed in the US.
Happy 1970s on the Upper West Side
Julio was born in Puerto Rico but moved with his parents to New York City when still a toddler. He and Colin immediately hit it off, despite a difference in age and background. Colin says Julio was basically illiterate.
‘He moved in with me and the first thing was to teach him to read. Given the opportunity, he blossomed. We had a wonderful and normal 10 years, and by 1988 he had been able to take a position as the manager of a works cafeteria.’
Colin was earning good money as a consultant. The two were able to travel, and Colin invested in buying a large boarding house on the Upper West Side. They both worked their separate jobs and operated the house together.
For ten years, they lived a contented life. New York City in the late 70s was something of a gay utopia, and the two men had many gay friends. Colin says they could walk around their neighborhood holding hands.
However, the shadow of AIDS was impossible to ignore.
The arrival of AIDS
‘When we met, Julio had a circle of about a dozen friends. By 1988, all but one had died,’ recalls Colin.
‘His best friend died in 1987. That really shook him up. We knew what was going on by that time, so we had a discussion between the two of us and we said, “Well, best that we both go and get tested”.’
Julio tested HIV positive, while Colin tested negative. In hindsight, Colin believes he must have some sort of partial immunity to the virus, as up until that point, he and Julio enjoyed a regular sex life. However, all that changed with Julio’s diagnosis.
‘His attitude altered almost overnight,’ remembers Colin. ‘He became very depressed and he lost his job. He just stopped turning up for work.’
Julio also made it clear that he would no longer have sex with Colin. At the time, there remained some uncertainty over exactly how the virus could be transmitted.
‘I got him to sign up with GMHC [Gay Men’s Health Crisis] which had already become well established in New York. He started to choose to have sex with other members of GMHC. They were all positive.’
Adapting to a change in status
Colin says he was initially understanding of Julio’s decision not to have sex with his HIV-negative partner. However, as time went on, he found the lack of intimacy challenging. Ultimately, he accepted that Julio’s HIV diagnosis had led to a permanent change in their relationship: they were still partners, but sex was off the table.
Fortunately, despite being HIV positive, Julio didn’t develop any AIDS-defining illnesses, such as pneumonia or Kaposi’s Sarcoma. However his T-cell count decreased.
In the US, those with HIV were entitled to claim certain disability benefits and Medicaid if their T-cell count fell below a certain level. Julio fell into this category.
‘There were issues about whether he would qualify if he was living with somebody, so what I did was buy two apartments adjacent to each other – studio apartments. I lived in one, he lived in the other next door. This way, we were able to stay together, although technically we were living apart for legal reasons. That’s how we continued.
‘Other than that, we did absolutely everything that every other regular couple did together.’
Sex with others
Although Julio found sexual satisfaction with other HIV positive men, Colin found it harder to do so with others. He’d have the odd encounter with men in public toilets, but never felt comfortable bringing the men home.
Julio on the other hand would do so, often, Colin believes, as if he were seeking his partner’s approval.
‘He needed to know I permitted it,’ he says, getting teary at the memory.
‘Initially I found it difficult, but over time, I got used to it.’
It can be easy to judge other people’s relationships. Often, if a relationship doesn’t conform to the heteronormative standard, others may view it as less or defective in some way.
However, as gay people, open relationships are far more common. The only two people who can decide if a relationship is working for them are the two people involved. And ultimately, Colin and Julio remained together for 34 years.
‘Julio’s HIV diagnosis was 1988. Around ten years after that, he started to develop a tremor in his hand.’
Despite not succumbing to any specific HIV-related illnesses, around the turn of the century, Julio was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome. This led to a steady deterioration in his physical health over the next ten years.
Towards the end of his life, Colin was caring for him with the help of another friend.
‘His mobility was severely restricted. His joints and tendons had all tightened up, he could hardly move. I would have to go into his bedroom and physically turn him over in his bed, he couldn’t do anything.’
Julio died in 2012 after suffering a heart attack.
‘I had the most wonderful relationship with Julio, in spite of all the medical issues,’ says Colin. He continues to miss Julio, and says he has found it difficult to be involved with anyone else.
‘Age is something to do with it. I’m 78. My friends are all starting to die off from old age. One of my best friends was ten years older than me, and he’s died of natural causes. My other best friend, a little bit older than me, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and took an overdose the same night.’
He continues to travel and lead an active life. He says playing Bridge has largely satisfied his need for social interaction (‘sometimes 4 or 5 times a week when I’m in London’).
Colin and Julio’s story is a reminder of the impact that HIV had on gay lives. And it’s not unique.
‘I don’t think it’s an unusual story,’ says Colin, ‘but I think it’s a story most people don’t hear.
‘Back then, AIDS was a death sentence.’