Eighties Envy

STORY: May 1983: From the moment the discovery of a “gay cancer” (GRID, or “gay-related immune deficiency”, later renamed AIDS) was announced in July 1981 right up through the mid-1990s (when protease inhibitors were developed, making the disease largely manageable), living as an active gay man in metropolitan NYC (and anywhere not removed from the possibility of sexual interaction with other men) was fraught with fear.


Countless millennials have contacted me on Instagram (@bammer47), reacting to the vintage photos and narrative I’ve posted there, expressing envy of the simpler and freer life we lived in the 1970s and 1980s. Those decades have somehow become romanticized in current popular culture.


What they don’t realize is that, if we had known in the 1970s what we know now, most of us would not have behaved in the same unfettered sexual way that we did (at the least, we would have made sure we used rubbers). Similarly, while the photos I post on Instagram are typically celebratory, they mask the fact that the 1980s was a decade any sane individual should be glad to have escaped: the critical need to hide our sexual orientation from our employers and our colleagues at work (so as not to risk being fired or underpaid); the panicky fear that every pimple or sore throat meant we had contracted AIDS; the visits to dying friends in hospitals; and the numerous funerals we attended once they had perished. No one should envy that!


We partied and we vacationed when we could, out of relief and as a break from the depressing routine that confronted us daily. The fun moments are largely what I post for my followers on Instagram, because I couldn’t bear (and didn’t think) to capture the devastation.


This photo of me was taken in May 1983, while I hosted a reunion in NYC of a half dozen others I’d studied with as an undergraduate in Rome, Italy in 1972. It represents a period of several years when, except for vacations, life was daunting. I like the attitude of defiance it conveys (via outstretched arms and manspread legs) against all I was facing.


—Mike Balaban