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The Virility of Memory

Mike Hippler wanted to be remembered. That’s what he told me, through the pages of his journal, approximately 31 years after he died from AIDS on April 4, 1991.

When I arrived at the GLBT Historical Society, in the basement of a beautiful building on a seedy street in San Francisco, I knew that I had exactly thirteen and a half hours to go through twenty years’ worth of near-daily chronicles of the life of a gay man who lived through the gay sexual revolution, wrote through the AIDS epidemic, and died before combination therapies brought the lucky, the so-called “Lazarus Men” back from the brink. I did so with an N-95 mask on my face because it was March of 2022, and we’d just hit the two-year anniversary of another global pandemic.

With no research time to spare, I skipped the 1970s and entered into Hippler’s daily life on January 2, 1981. He’d dropped a large quantity of acid on New Year’s Eve and made his way through a debauched night, which he capped off by having sex with five men in Buena Vista Park.

“It was certainly irresponsible, considering the likelihood of disease,” he wrote. “I figure I have a 50-50 chance of catching something from that experience.”

“Catching something,” at that time meant antibiotics, maybe an outbreak of herpes or hepatitis, and, perhaps, temporary celibacy.

“I was on my 16th day of medicine (out of 20), & so I figured I was probably as clean as anybody could be. After 16 days they [intestinal parasites] must be gone & the final days are insurance.”

“Catching something” did not yet mean AIDS.


Having taught composition to first year students for the better part of my career, I was used to witnessing the effects of college life on their immune systems. It’s almost a rule that freshman dorms need to be dank. Why use plaster when you can build walls with cinder blocks? The one or two windows allocated to each room can’t open too wide as you want to minimize the temptation to hurl bottles and other objects out of them. (I say this with no judgment because writing the previous sentence invoked very old memories of standing on windowsills and pitching things out of cracked windows.) Putting the radiator right underneath the windows ensures that rooms are never anything but too hot or too cold. Temperature regulation is for the upper classes. The architectural petri dish is supplemented by abuse of the body: too much alcohol, not enough sleep, and interminable mingling. Over the 15 years that I’ve been teaching, students have reported food poisoning, mono, strep throat, migraines, and anxiety to me. Students have sent me emails while in the bathroom and showed me x-rays of their kidney stones. One winter the campus where I was teaching had an outbreak of mumps.

In February and early March of 2020, my classrooms were emptied out by flu-like symptoms that were not the flu. We were skeptical. How could a spate of fevers, chills, sore throats, and body aches not be the flu? We questioned the competency of my college’s health center, and I created asynchronous course materials so that my students wouldn’t feel compelled to come to class sick.

There was some new virus in China. An outbreak. An epidemic. A pandemic.


In the 14th century, the word virus referred to something produced in the body as a result of disease. And although HIV wasn’t identified as such until 1983, the early theories suggested it was a result of the brutal and repeated assaults on the immune systems of gay men by myriad STDs and infections. The word virility came onto the scene in the 15th century and meant “a period of manhood.”

The virility of gay men, according to this perspective, produced the virus, the “potent juice.” The collective results of individual actions had resulted in a poorly understood consequence.


For Hippler, dropping acid had the consequence of rendering him depressed and suicidal. His new year was, unsurprisingly, punctuated with resolutions… fewer drugs, less partying, etc., etc., etc. But how does one not throw a party for their 30th birthday? “I have bought 2 cases of champagne, a case of beer, lots of wine, mixers and the like” he wrote in the days leading up to the party.

After cataloging the contents of the bar, Hippler contemplated the contents of his guest list: “There will definitely be a strange mix of people from completely different circles that half of them will know no one but me. Some of my very best friends don’t know each other, for instance—Russell + Kerley, Kerley + Dennis, Dennis and Russell. But they’ll loosen up under my liberating influence no doubt.” Personally, though perhaps gruesomely, I was excited to learn that Dennis would be at the birthday party. Dennis, in a manner of speaking, introduced me to Hippler.


Maybe it’s because I quit drinking shortly after I turned thirty, but hiding out in history is a form of escapism for me. When I started to be afraid of dying, I studied the conquest of the Aztec empire and fantasized about believing in their gods. I made it through big chunks of the Trump administration by listening to podcasts about Richard Nixon, as well as week-by-week histories of World War I. I finished off my thirties while learning about the Spanish Flu, and right around the time that COVID was deemed a pandemic, I became obsessed with AIDS. I started out by reading the writing of survivors. In his memoir Body Counts, Sean Strub describes Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions encroaching on his skin and lungs and then being brought back from the brink by protease inhibitors. Through my fascination with survivors, I began to wonder about who we had lost, as well as how they were remembered or forgotten. This wondering brought me to the Bay Area Reporter’s obituary archive.

I’ve since read a lot of accounts of life in the Castro during the peak of the AIDS crisis, and they are bound together by what I’ve come to think of as mnemonic tropes:

  • The men around you, your doctor, your bartender, your bank teller, disappearing and dying;
  • The unceasing procession of obituaries in the Bay Area Reporter.

There is something startling about service providers, the backdrop of daily life, being plucked out of existence only to be found in the obituary section sometime later. Survivors have written about the day when, for the first time in 17 years, there were no obituaries printed in the week’s issue of BAR. But that moment was thousands of lifetimes away when Hippler published “A Belated Valentine for Dennis.” I found this piece by chance while I was clicking through the index of obituaries from 1985.

In his remembrance, Hippler wrote about his friendship with Dennis, which started as a love affair and blossomed into a sisterhood. I was struck by the way that he stepped away from writing about his memories to taking on causality, the elephant in the middle of the pandemic: “There are those who will blame his death on the life he led before his illness—the promiscuity, the drugs, whatever—but to me that is irrelevant. When he did those things, Dennis did not know what might happen, and even if he had, what does it matter?”


Current theories about the origins of AIDS center on the cut hunter hypothesis, which imagines a hunter in the bush of central Africa butchering a chimpanzee. The hunter cut his own hand, and his blood intermixed with that of the SIV-infected chimp. This moment of spillover was the beginning of a causal explosion, which led to viral shrapnel embedding itself into immune systems across time and space. In his book, The Origins of AIDS, Jaques Pepins describes the “genius” of HIV. Due to a long incubation period, “people infected with HIV […] can live and quietly pass on the virus for ten years or more. The symptoms could not have been less specific.”

The spillover, it should be noted, probably occurred somewhere between 1908 and 1920.


If the HIV virus’ genius was defined by its stealth, then how do we describe COVID? A crashing, bumbling rhinoceros of a virus, perhaps. Though scientists are still quibbling about the details—the specific animal, the specific moment, the specific alignment of factors needed for a virus native to one species to spill over into another—we have a clear sense of how COVID-19 came into being. From the earliest days of media coverage, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, became a generative site for epidemiologists and the popular imagination.

An article in Nature [1]synthesizing several scientific journal articles described a photograph of “a live raccoon dog in a metal cage, stacked above crates of poultry, with the whole assembly sitting on top of sewer drains” taken five years before COVID. This image represented everything you needed to rapidly disseminate a viral spillover. It was also unsanitary enough for us to cast a shadow of blame on the vendors and customers enabling this contamination.

Once you think too much about spillover events, it feels like we are always on the brink of the right combination, the right mutation, the wrong intermingling of species, to derail the world, to kill 35 million people (AIDS) or over 6.5 million people (COVID)[2].

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2020, I started thinking about what I might have been doing in November or December of 2019. Where was I when the spillover happened?


Linearity appeals to me. I try my best to corral daily life into a series of processes. One thing begets another, and I have an iota of control over my world. My PhD dissertation was about memory; six chapters of analysis attempting to figure out how individual memories become public memories, those memories that are collectively shared by a society. I’ve found myself asking similar questions about epidemiology. How does one virus become a global pandemic?

According to the Center for Disease Control[3],” on December 12, 2019, “a cluster of patients in China’s Hubei Province, in the city of Wuhan, begin to experience symptoms of an atypical pneumonia-like illness that does not respond well to standard treatments.” In June of 1981 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report reported that “In the period of October 1980-May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia [PCP] at 3 different hospitals in California.”

Endemic is an adjective used to describe baseline level of a disease within a community. For a newly spilled-over virus, there is no baseline. In 1980, the baseline level of PCP was so low that it didn’t make sense to manufacture the drug needed to treat it. The CDC prepared doses on an as-needed basis. Cluster, however, is a noun, an “aggregation of cases grouped in place and time that are suspected to be greater than the number expected, even though the number may not be known.”[4]

In January of 2020, the SARS-CoV-2 virus was referred to as an outbreak. An outbreak is like an epidemic—“an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected”—but in a limited geographic area. Outbreaks were popping up all over the world. Also in January of 2020, CDC artists created the now ubiquitous red and white image of the virus’ spike protein, thus providing it with “an identity.”

In August of 1981, Dr. Robert Bolan assured readers of the Bay Area Reporter that the occurrences of KS, PCP, and CMV, in the gay community was “not an epidemic spreading out of control—the number of cases is a very small percentage of the Gay community.” However, he did warn that “there will probably be a rather rapid increase in the total number of cases for the next few weeks or so because as the word spreads throughout the general and medical community, more cases already in existence will come to diagnosis.” On March 12, 2020, the FDA stopped requiring the CDC to conduct testing to confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis.

For the first few months of 1982, the BAR limited its use of the word “epidemic” to herpes and hepatitis. However, on August 5th, under the heading of “Another Epidemic,” the acronym AID [sic] was defined as “an immune system gone haywire.” A month later, the first named reference to AIDS was made in MMDR; they quoted the CDC’s definition of AIDS: “a disease, at least moderately predictive of a defect in cell-mediated immunity, occurring in a person with no known cause for diminished resistance to that disease.” At that time, the MMDR was still talking about cases, cases of PCP, cases of KS, cases of opportunistic infections, in otherwise healthy gay men and hemophiliacs.

By March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization upgraded the dispersed outbreaks to a pandemic, there had been 118,000 cases of COVID-19 worldwide and 4,291 deaths. “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly” the Director-General of the WHO told the gathered members of the media. “It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.[5]

When used properly, the word pandemic “refers to an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.”

In April of 1982, the BAR credited Reverend Jerry Falwell with saying, “History proves that homosexuality reaches a pandemic level in societies in crisis or a state of collapse.” On March 19, 2020, a photographer for The Washington Post captured an image of Donald Trump’s speech for a press briefing on the pandemic. The word “Corona” was crossed out in thick black marker and replaced with a handwritten, “Chinese.”

The BAR did not begin routinely referring to AIDS as a pandemic until 1987.


It was hard not to do cocaine when Russell was around. In his upbeat moments, Hippler described Russell as one of his very closest friends. In darker moments, he wondered how much they had in common anyway. Russell had a fabulous collection of antiques, including a real Chinese screen, which Hippler coveted. In the summer of 1984 Russell and Hippler spent a day at the beach, “splashing in the waves,” playing Scrabble, and exploring tide pools though Russell’s “not an adventurous soul.”  This bucolic day stood in contrast to their hedonistic evening.

“Dinner was followed by a social evening at Jack & Jimmy’s, which would have been perfect had not Russell produced a package of cocaine. “No thank you,” I said when it was offered to me, but after being pressed replied “Well, maybe one line.” One line led to five or six, as I knew it would (which is why I’ve tried to abstain from cocaine all together).”

Unfortunately, the brighter parts of the evening, when Hippler and his friends “all talked and talked each other’s ears off,” led a trip to the baths: “I will not belabor this next bit, but I will say that after at least a 2-year absence, that going to the baths was not a good idea.”  Once he’d outlined all of the reasons why he didn’t need or want to go to the baths, Hippler offered a parenthetical aside: “(Oh yes, I was curious to see if anyone still goes there anymore in this age of AIDS.)”


Once Anthony Fauci became a household name, a lot of journalists and commentators started talking about the work he did with AIDS, AIDS activists, and people with AIDS during and beyond the initial pandemic. Fauci, being Fauci, can recall, with remarkable clarity, the exact moment that he read about the cluster cases of pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) that affected five otherwise healthy gay men in Los Angeles.

In February of 2021, Fauci was interviewed by Terri Gross. “I read that, you know, during those days you went to one or more of the gay bathhouses in New York, I assume in your suit and tie.” Both Fauci and Gross laugh for a moment, and he then responds, “No, I took my suit and tie off.” Gross responds, “Did you?” They laugh again.


Driving home from the baths, after the night spent doing cocaine at Jack and Jimmy’s, Hippler was overcome by his transgression.

Not until 5AM when I left did I feel guilty. Then it hit me all at once, & I drove home saying, “Please God, I don’t want to die,” which is a major change from the past, when under similar circumstances I would say, “Please, God, don’t let me wake up in the morning.” Fortunately, God took pity on me & provided a parking space only 3 blocks from my house, & as soon as I got into my own little bed in my own little apartment (& as soon as Russell’s valium kicked in), I didn’t feel so bad anymore.


Hippler traveled to Mexico, with his lover, Mark, in January of 1990. One evening, they drank cocktails while on the top floor of Torre Latinoamerican, Mexico’s tallest building. As the sun set, they read to one another from letters they’d written.  “As before, I was fascinated by Mark’s description of the same events I experienced & things I witnessed,” Hippler reflected. “Again, I wanted a copy of his letter to provide a different perspective, to show how two people read the same thing.”

Besides the many letters to Mark, Hippler’s own journals were full of reproductions of letters sent or received and passages drawn from other texts. His journaling intermixed with his correspondence, which intermixed with his public columns. I traveled to San Francisco to read Hippler’s archived journals because having been captivated by his columns, I wanted to know how he wrote about things in his private space. For Hippler though, the line between public and private was porous.

Mark, however, had a different view of things.

“I’m happy to read it to you,’ he said, “But I don’t want to make a copy of it. For me, a letter is like a gift & it somehow cheapens that gift to give it to others as well.”

“But won’t you at least save it for yourself, Mark?” I asked. “Don’t you want to preserve your own record of this trip?”

“No, why should I?”

“Because you’re a writer & writers like to save things.”

“No, writers like to write things; archivists like to save things. I’m perfectly happy to record my thoughts & then give them to a friend, who may or may not keep them. It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. Besides, there’s so much of that around – copy machines, fax machines, recording machines. People process documents by the thousands, but no one writes anymore, which makes the gift of a letter all the more precious when I simply mail it to someone. “

It is an attitude I understand – and can admire – but do not share.

I am not entirely sure how the archival researcher fits into this equation. I read what has been saved and attempt to reanimate memories and to find the linear narrative hidden within a dead man’s everyday life.


When I was about twenty-five, I became fixated on death. As a result of one sleepless night, my youthful sense of immortality, and my occasional tendency towards suicidal ideation, was replaced with a profound and obsessive sense of mortality. I traveled to Mexico City, desperate to find something to believe in. My travels through Mexico brought me to places that Hippler had visited and written about in his journal. Both of us visited Teotihuacan, the so-called “city of the gods.”

By the time Hernan Cortés and his men arrived in Mexico, Teotihuacan had already been transformed from remembered to imagined. The Aztecs believed the pyramid sized mounds were the bodies of sleeping gods. One account that I read says that Cortés “passed through Teotihuacan, ignoring the strange mountains that adorned the areas.” I guess Cortés wasn’t interested in any scenery that didn’t sparkle with gold.

Cortes ignored what he saw. Nearly 500 years later, Hippler visited Teotihuacan and contemplated the sight of modern civilization encroaching on the ruins of an ancient civilization. While sitting on top of the Pyramid of the Moon, he wrote, “Fortunately, there are still a few miles of ‘unspoiled’ countryside between the city and Teotihuacan – the last few – and it is those I enjoyed the most.” Another 15 years passed before I stared up at the same pyramid.  I’m terrified of heights, so I stood at the base and thought about how many people had died before me.

How do you live when you think about death every day?


In March of 1983, Hippler went to San Francisco General Hospital to visit a man named Steve Corpuz, an acquaintance, a friend of a friend, who was hospitalized with PCP. In both his journal and the published article, Hippler was honest about his intentions for and reactions to the visit. Reflecting on the visit in his journal he wrote:

I envisioned myself as a sort of Angel of Mercy, visiting the sick in the hospital like Mom used to do. Furthermore, I was curious. I hear about AIDS all the time, but Steve is the first person I’ve known to actually come down with it. I wanted to see for myself what it could do to someone – I wanted to force myself to confront the matter.

Though the experience certainly led Hippler to confront AIDS — “he had tubes in his nose, an IV unit in his arm, & an oxygen mask on his face”— his interaction with Steve also led to a confrontation with his past. The language in his journal is echoed in the resulting column. “When I gave him the little gift I brought,” Hippler wrote, “a copy of Gay Comix #3, I felt much worse for he turned away and said, “I don’t want it.” Later he said “Thanks, but that’s not where my head is at.”

In the published article, Hippler analyzes the moment:

It was clear that the free-wheeling, heady Gay lifestyle that the comic book represented appalled Steve now. “That’s what put me here,” he explained, “and I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” I was amazed, not so much at the depth of Steve’s bitterness but at the focus of it. Obviously, he blamed his illness on being Gay. If he weren’t Gay, he implied, he would never have gotten pneumocystis. Suddenly, I felt guilty — not just for being healthy, but also for being Gay and still glad to be so. I knew he was wrong to feel the way he did, but as I sat by that hospital bed, I wondered if perhaps I would feel the same if I were the one reaching for the oxygen mask.

Regarding the awkwardness of his conversation with Steve, Hippler wrote, “I tried to pretend that there was nothing unusual about our situation, that I often spoke with a mask on my face to friends in hospital beds. The mask, however, was hard to ignore. It kept slipping down over my nose.”


The cut hunter hypothesis explains the spillover of SIV from chimpanzees to humans. However, things get tricky around questions of dissemination. How did the virus make its way from the Congo in the early 20th century to New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in the 1970s? In order to understand this process, we need to begin by pluralizing the spillover. If SIV has been present in chimpanzees and other simian creatures for hundreds of years, then it stands to reason spillovers occurred more than once. However, as explained by Pépin in The Origin of AIDS, earlier the spillovers may have hit epidemiological dead ends. If the cut hunter didn’t go beyond his village, then the virus might not have gotten much farther than his immediate sexual contacts and their offspring.            However, elements of modernity, such colonialism and organized medicine, combined to create channels through which HIV was able to gain the traction needed to become a cluster, an outbreak, and epidemic, and, finally, a pandemic.

The forces of colonialism in Africa, including urbanization and exploitation, brought people out of villages and into cities. Systematic campaigns against viruses native to regions prioritized the injection of vaccines over the cleanliness of needles. In the Belgian Congo, during the post-colonial era, French speaking Haitians, teachers and doctors, fleeing unrest in their own country, filled in gaps left by the former colonizers.

According to Pépin, under the right conditions, it might have only taken one person to become infected with HIV in the Congo and bring the virus to Haiti, where a variety of factors—blood banks, political corruption, Americans on erotic holidays—created a kind of HIV super highway.

It’s estimated that the infections catalyzed by this causal chain began occurring around 1971 but remained under the radar, slowly eroding immune systems, for about ten years.


I skimmed through about ten years of Hippler’s journals during the 13.5 hours that I had to spend in the archive and left with a total of 741 scanned pages. Just under a page a minute. This meant that I experienced Hippler’s decade of AIDS at hyper-speed; over the years, which for me, passed in hours, Hippler’s journals sometimes felt consumed by the pandemic. In May of 1983, he wrote, “Everyone is talking, but no one has any answers. With much speculation but little concrete information, most Gay men are nervous and afraid. AIDS is causing great unrest in the Gay community.” Despite this unrest, Hippler also documented a kind of dark pragmatism.

Russell hasn’t wasted much time trying to find a reason why he got AIDS. Like me, he believes we were all exposed to the virus years ago; consequently, he thinks that all our efforts at prevention are useless. “Hell, if I had known I was going to get it, I would have been a pig for the past 2 years instead of cleaning up my act.” The trouble is, he never did really clean up his act all that much. Oh, he cut out going to the baths two years ago & stopped having numerous sexual partners, but he never stopped partying.

After Russell’s death, in July of 1985, Hippler published a piece “Notes From My Journal.” Without commentary, he offered readers a chronological assembly of excerpts from his journal about his friend’s experience with AIDS. Although Russell was Hippler’s 8th friend to die from AIDS, when he heard the news, “something broke inside.”


I remember the moment that I realized the COVID pandemic was real. I was standing in front of my refrigerator, reading through a group text thread, when my friend Will wrote that the playgrounds were closing. My daughter was two at the time, and she loved swings. She also had a habit of falling asleep on them, so we have many pictures of her slumped over while suspended in the air. As I thought about the swings being taken away from her, to borrow Hippler’s words, something broke inside of me. In addition to feeling scared, I just felt really sad.  I bent down over the kitchen counter, still clutching my phone.

The park near our house was sponsored by Hasbro, which explains the large statue of Mr. Potato Head positioned near the entrance. Unlike the real toy, his parts are not interchangeable, so he continued to grin despite his complacency in holding the yellow tape that was ostensibly keeping kids off of the equipment.


In Teotihuacan, the Pyramid of the Moon stands at the northernmost point of the Avenue of the Dead. If you follow the avenue, you will eventually reach the Temple of Quetzacoatl, a smaller but more lavish pyramid. My favorite book about Mexico[6], a sweeping history that goes from the Olmecs to the Aztecs, reports that 200 warriors were sacrificed during the dedication and interred in large burial pits on the north and south sides of the pyramid; other pits contained a smaller number of young women. In addition, a single slain captive had been placed at each of the pyramid’s four corners, and, “in the center of the pyramid was the richest offering of all, with twenty victims and thousands of pieces of jade, shell, and other materials.” (Coe 109-110).

Despite having written his six-page journal entry from Teotihuacan, Hippler didn’t put a lot of detail into what he saw while he was there. He seemed more interested in describing the intervening countryside than the once-great city. There’s no way of knowing if he walked the length of the Avenue of the Dead, or if the Temple of Quetzalcoatl included signage confessing its gruesome contents: hundreds of young men sacrificed and interred. I want to imagine that he did do all of this. I want to imagine that Hippler climbed the pyramid, despite his bad knee, which he hurt while water skiing and would eventually prevent him from driving. I want to imagine that Hippler learned about the sacrificed young warriors and thought about his own friends. Different circumstances, of course, but still a fucking tragedy.

Hippler, I think, was more of a people watcher. “On the bus I lost my heart – briefly – to a young Indian father with jet black hair, full lips, and a classic profile […] He was carrying his beautiful infant son in his arms.” He ran into the man again while at the top of the Pyramid of the Moon and asked to take his photograph. “He smiled & we talked – but he would not smile for the picture. Too bad. But half a memory is better than nothing.”

Memory is inherently fragmented.


I went to the GLBT archive in San Francisco to read Mike Hippler’s journals because I wanted to know how he felt about testing positive for HIV in 1987. The entry in question was dated October 22, 1987.

It has not been a particularly good week so far. On Monday, I talked to Dr. Strull, who told me that my HIV antibody test had come back positive. Since I’ve assumed for years that this was the case, I wasn’t surprised. Still, the news was unsettling, perhaps because I’ve used ignorance as a talisman. If I didn’t know my antibody status, I reasoned, then I wouldn’t get AIDS.

Once he knew his antibody status, however, Hippler was keenly aware that from a statistical perspective, he “would receive some kind of diagnosis—AIDS or ARC—within the next year.” This, he reasoned, was hard to ignore. His doctor wanted him to start taking AZT immediately. “I’m not sure if I want to take the stuff” he wrote, “Too little is known about it.”


AZT had been only licensed by the FDA seven months before Hippler’s doctor recommended he start the medication. Moreover, this approval came after just 20 months of research and the implementation of one double blind study, which was terminated early. Given that it normally took new drugs 8-10 years to make it from lab to market, AZT’s turnaround time was astronomically fast. It was the first drug to slow the progression of the HIV virus. It was the first drug to offer any real hope.

In July of 1987, The New England Journal of Medicine published “The Efficacy of Azidothymidine (AZT) in the Treatment of Patients with AIDS and AIDS-Related Complex: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial.” There were 282 subjects in the study; 145 received AZT and 137 received a placebo. At the outset of the study, all of the participants had received scores of around 80 on the Karnofsky Performance Scale, which rates how well cancer patients are able to complete daily tasks. A Karnofsky score of 80 indicates that the patient is “able to carry on normal activity and to work; no special care needed.”

Within just a few months, 20 of the research subjects died, 19 of whom had received the placebo. In the words of the study, “The most striking difference between AZT and placebo recipients was a significantly lower incidence of death.”

Researchers determined that during the initial course of treatment, AZT could in fact slow the progression of AIDS, as seen through levels of CD4 cells, better known as T-helper cells.

At the time that he took the HIV-antibody test, Hippler’s T-cell count was 145. According to current CDC definitions, a person has AIDS, as opposed to HIV, if their T-cell count is below 200.

Ultimately, “AZT administration was therefore associated with a fourfold-to-sixfold reduction in the mortality rates in the study population at nine months.”


Beyond his initial statement regarding the unknowns associated with AZT, Hippler doesn’t use his journal as a space to perseverate about whether or not to take it. However, since the archives of the Bay Area Reporter are completely digitized, it’s easy to pull up the eight or so articles that were written about the drug between 1986 and 1987. These articles provide insight into what kind of information he was able to access. Public discourse was clear that AZT was not a cure but that it could buy time, especially if someone with a confirmed HIV diagnosis began the drug while their CD4 count was still relatively high. Hippler took solace in the fact that he was still relatively healthy despite his low T-cell count. The side effects of AZT (anemia, increased susceptibility to infections, nausea, and weight loss) had the potential to make him feel sick and thus get sicker. However, once a social worker was able to provide Hippler with coverage for the prescription—AZT cost $10,000 a year—he bought a pillbox with an alarm and began treatment with relatively little documented fanfare.


Once you start to look for them, parallels across time, pandemics, and viruses are easy to find, but can also be overstated.

The crux of the parallels and perpendiculars between the two viruses has to do with proofreading. Viruses reproduce through templates that create genomes, the genetic materials in cells. In the simplest terms, HIV doesn’t have a mechanism for proofreading these templates, so errors in the genetic code, typos of a sort, aren’t filtered out during the production process. Within an infected person, the HIV virus mutates constantly, but large-scale diversification of the virus may take decades[7]. In contrast, because of better proofreading, COVID mutations are not produced within individual bodies nearly as much. However, mutations do occur across populations. Individual variants (think Omicron) “can move very swiftly and effect near total turnover of local populations on the timescale of a few months.” This is why, as 2021 slogged on and 2022 got underway, we were pummeled by Alpha, Delta, and Omicron. Anti-vaxxers framed these variants as being in a kind of an arms race: the vaccine and the virus are caught in an ongoing pattern of one upping each other, but science does not support that epidemiological interpretation.

In November of 2021, Fauci attempted to calm us down. “We should not be freaking out,” he said. “It’s not the time to panic. We should be concerned, and our concern should spur us to do the things that we know work.”[8] The thing that works: vaccinations.

In 1989, after AZT had been authorized for about two years, studies started to show that the drug’s efficacy decreased over time. The ubiquitous mutation of HIV meant that natural selection, within individual bodies, was creating genomes that were resistant to the drug. Per Fauci: “People who are on AZT and currently benefiting from AZT should not panic and consider this a major setback.”[9]

A causal chain: AZT was the first drug to be fast tracked by FDA. This fast tracking belied the fact that the increase in T cells wrought by AZT was not necessarily sustainable. This lack of sustainability was attributed to viral mutations within individual people. People with AIDS had to determine whether or not the side effects caused by the drug’s toxicity were worth it. Thirty-four years later, a vaccine for HIV remains elusive partially because of the virus’ high level of individual mutations. COVID, on the other hand, can be targeted by vaccines because the virus doesn’t mutate as frequently inside individual people, mostly just when transmitted between people. And although there are outbreaks of variants, a generalized vaccine can provide some immunity; the formula can also be adjusted to address certain variants. The fast tracking of AZT paved the way for the fast tracking of COVID vaccines. Lingering distrust over AZT was mirrored by distrust over the COVID vaccines. It was too fast. Long term effects are not known. The virus keeps evolving. People still get sick. The vaccinated, however, get less sick.

Per an article published in Cell Host & Microbe in June of 2021, “Humanity is currently facing the challenge of two devastating pandemics caused by two very different RNA viruses: HIV-1, which has been with us for decades, and SARS-CoV-2, which has swept the world in the course of a single year.”

A press release from UNAID circulated in February of 2022 stated, “The HIV pandemic continues to take a life every minute and scientists have long worried about the evolution of new, more transmissible, variants of HIV.”[10]

As of December 28, 2022, the World Health Organization reported that in high income countries, three out of four people had received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. In lower income countries, on the other hand, only one in three people had received at least one dose. [11]


After receiving his positive test result in 1989, Hippler’s journal entries about his health concerns began to feel more poignant. This might be attributed to dramatic irony. After all, in my role as Hippler’s interlocutor, I am aware of how the story ends. When I finally printed out my 741 scanned pages, I started filling them with post-it notes and highlights. “T-Cells=79”; “T-Cells=20”; “Working sick”; “Bad day//fall @ bank.” The sections that I have highlighted are hard to read.  They are points on a fatal trajectory. By highlighting them, I have pulled them out and allowed myself to skim through the macabre. But I cannot ignore the moments between these points, the moments in which Hippler firmly defended his right to continue to feel alive even in the midst of dying.

While shopping in late-1990, Hippler came across what he described as a Chinese lamp ($130) and a Chinese screen ($300). He could not afford them.

Unfortunately, I could not forget them either. I’ve wanted a Chinese screen for years, and although what I preferred was an authentic antique featuring a village scene like the one Russell used to have, this was the best alternative I have seen since he died. Besides, I knew when Russell failed to leave me his screen in his will that I was fated never to own one. I just never accepted it until now.

Hippler once wrote about coveting Russell’s antique Chinese screen. In 1985, Russell died. In 1990, a little over a year out from his impending death, Hippler negotiated a price of $400 for a screen and a lamp that probably wouldn’t even fit in his apartment. “Not a very practical line of reasoning for one who makes $700 a month on disability and whose savings account is declining precipitously,” he wrote, “But, like I said before, what the hell?”

In 1988, Hippler wrote an article, “The Significance of Preserving Our Collective Memories,” about the fledgling LGBT archives that were then being housed in the archivist’s home.

“Although most people don’t realize it,” states Walker, “private papers such as diaries are far more important than published materials, such as parade programs or fictionalized accounts of gay life. They are the things which will provide future historians glimpses of what life was truly like for us.”

I love reading that passage and knowing that Hippler’s journals were archived. Rightly or wrongly, it provides me with a sense of absolution for the extent to which I have entered his world and tried to amplify his memory.

Frankly, I have no other option, except to give up. And I refuse to do that. I’ve got to hang on, if not forever then for a little while longer at least. Hell, I’ve got reservations to fly to Puerto Rico & the Virgin Islands in February.


Hippler’s final column, “A Last Laugh,” was published on April 11, 1991, nine days after his death on April 2nd. “By the time you’re reading this, I’ll be dead,” he wrote. Despite the connotations of this statement, the tone of the column was not morose. As was typical of Hippler’s style, the writing was marked by pragmatism and gallows humor.

“Because I don’t believe in postponing until tomorrow what I can easily do today, or in allowing others to do for me what I can do for myself, I’m writing my own obituary when I’m still able to do it. This, then, is the last article you’ll be reading by me—unless I’ve got something else up my sleeve.”

Hippler used the present tense to describe the moment of his writing: At present—the time I’m writing, not the time you’re reading—I’m lying in the shade of a palm tree on a beach in the Virgin Islands. Death seems very far away. But at least in the perceptions of others, I’ve been close to death for quite some time.

Hippler documented his Caribbean vacation in some of the last few entries he made in his journal. He started the trip with a sojourn in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The city did not initially impress him:

The weather I didn’t expect. The overdeveloped beachfront I did. But the hotel is the biggest disappointment. A thirty-year-old, one-story stucco bloc, there is little light, no carpet, no TV (don’t need it), no balcony, no view and no pool. The ceilings are made of pressed cardboard, the windows of louvered glass (read cheap.) One side of the building is bordered by high rises, the other (mine) by a narrow alley. But at least it’s clean and safe, and what more do you want for $50 a night.

Based on this description, it’s clear that the hotel was on La Avenida Isla Verde, which is lined with beach-facing condominium complexes on one side and fast-food restaurants and souvenir shops on the other. His description of “over developed” is likely true, but I still love it there. In the summer of 2022, my partner, my kids, and I took our second vacation to the area. A narrow alleyway leading to the beach separated the condominium complex where we were staying from the Borinquen Beach Inn, a two-star hotel that fits the description and timeline of Hippler’s place of lodging. The louvered windows are still there.

I was also fairly disappointed with our lodging. Although the building’s amenities were fine, there was glass in the living room of our unit that could be opened, but there was no balcony on the other side. We tied them shut with a luggage strap and a pair of my daughter’s leggings and blocked off the area with the coffee table, but these precautions did not spare me from my anxious imagination. There were also rip tide warnings in place for the entire week that we were there. After the first day, I stopped accompanying my son to the beach because the sight of him disappearing into wave after wave after wave was also far too generative for my imagination.


In his last few journal entries, the ones he would have been writing in “the shade of a palm tree on the Virgin Islands,” Hippler’s handwriting changes. His once scrawling script becomes tiny and controlled. He takes up for less space on the page. He counts the number of stairs between his bungalow and the beach—nine up and 108 down—and vividly describes his experiences snorkeling, marveling over how plentiful the fish were even when the water was shallow enough for him to stand. Reading these entries, it is easy to see how his health was declining.

I’m beginning to get really worried these days. I mean, really worried. Last night, in the midst of dinner, I vomited. Amazingly, I was able to finish, but the next morning, after sleeping for twelve hours, I couldn’t remember what day it was. I don’t mean the particular date; I couldn’t remember whether it was today or yesterday.

On top of that, my hand frequently shakes. I have trouble reading. And the crossword puzzle is difficult for me. Is it any wonder that I’m getting increasingly worried?

Cruelly, along with taking away so much else, AIDS was taking away the writer’s ability to write.

The last journal entry in Hippler’s archive is dated March 1, 1991, one month before he died. I don’t know if he stopped writing, or if the executors of his estate opted to keep his last weeks of entries to themselves. In his last lines, he describes how adorable the staff members around his St. John bungalow were. In parentheses, his last sentence reads, “And am I envious? Not of their youth, their bodies, or their job.”


We are living in a moment where time and memory are tangled up. I know that I have said, “Well, I’ve never lived through a pandemic before” on many occasions. But the reality is I grew up during one. The first cases referenced by MMWR occurred in October of 1980, the month I was born. It just didn’t touch me directly. And for this, my second pandemic, COVID’s touch has been more emotional than physical.

For Mike Hippler, AIDS’ touch was not light. He wrote about looking at pictures from before and mentally x-ing out the faces of those friends who had died. In an article written in July of 1989, he described the ritual of cleaning out his Rolodex, which he’d started using after he tired of scratching names out of his address book.

But there is a great variety in the relationships in my life. I call these people friends because they were at one time, but many I hadn’t seen in months or years. That I kept their addresses and numbers for so long is proof not that I don’t care but that I still do: I simply don’t like to let go, even when it’s pointless to hold on.

So does this mitigate the loss I feel or compromise the sincerity of my feelings? I don’t think so. It doesn’t take a highly developed sensitivity to appreciate the deaths of friends, of former friends, or even strangers. Watching my world collapse and the companions of my youth disappear, naturally I feel empty.

In 1990, Hippler was asked to speak at a church service. He was asked about what life and the afterlife, as an atheist, meant to him.

Because I don’t need an umbrella to protect me from the infinite, I reply. Because this life, with no hope of an afterlife or salvation, is still enough. It is sufficient to accept our lot and make the most of what we have, and then return ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If we do this, we are not lost. We need nothing more.”


As I write this, we are nearing the third anniversary of the pandemic. After my son told me that masks made him feel invisible, and my daughter was finally vaccinated, I tapered off of masking. My hands, though clean, are no longer chapped from minutes spent in streams of scalding water. When I finally tested positive for COVID, in November of 2022, I joked about my own history of infertility and how it was kind of satisfying to finally get two lines. COVID is now a different virus. It’s going to be like the flu. Endemic.

HIV is also a different virus. Though there is no vaccine, prophylactic medications now exist. Anti-viral treatments can keep folks who have tested positive at undetectable levels in perpetuity. HIV/AIDS is now a chronic illness, and there are geriatric AIDS clinics opening up.

Neither pandemic is over.


On October 11, 1992, ACT UP activists staged a political funeral in Washington, DC. The leaflet for the event reads “We will carry the ashes of people we love in funeral procession to the White House. In an act of grief, rage, and love, we will deposit ashes on the front lawn.” Like so many of ACT UP’s actions, the event was recorded. Bags and boxes are opened up and the air is filled with dust as the protestors vigorously shake the ashes of their loved ones over the White House’s wrought iron fence. Hippler’s lover Mark appears in the frame, shaking a bag of ashes and shouting, “I love you Mike!”  At some point during the event, someone interviewed Mark. “I came to scatter the ashes of my lover, Michael Tad Hippler,” he told the interviewer. At the end of the conversation, he addressed Mike directly: “So I love you, Mike, and I know you would have wanted to be where you are now.”




[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-00584-8

[2] As of December 2022

[3] https://www.cdc.gov/museum/timeline/covid19.html

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/training/publichealth101/epidemiology.html

[5] https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—11-march-2020

[6] Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, by Michael D. Coe and Rex Koontz

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8173590/

[8] https://www.newsweek.com/fauci-warns-americans-not-panic-over-omicron-scientists-rush-determine-threat-1654003

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/1989/03/15/us/aids-viruses-found-resistant-to-azt.html

[10] https://www.unaids.org/en/resources/presscentre/pressreleaseandstatementarchive/2022/february/20220207_hiv-variant

[11] https://data.undp.org/vaccine-equity/

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