People just disappeared.
Survivors say that was one of the most disconcerting things about living through the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
“Girls were just disappearing,” recalls Cheryl Courtney-Evans, the Atlanta-based transgender activist who founded the support organization Transgender Individuals Living Their Truth. “If you missed seeing a girl that you were accustomed to seeing every night or all the time and you weren’t hearing about her being busted in some sort of sweep or raid or getting picked up, if you weren’t hearing about her calling somebody to bring some money down to the jail and you hadn’t seen her, you generally assumed that she was in the hospital.”
It was a tough period for transgender women, Courtney-Evans says: “If you didn’t see her [after] about a week or two weeks, well, she’s gone. And we knew they were in a pauper’s grave somewhere…we didn’t know their legal names, the names that we could find them under. So they would just disappear and we would just assume, well, there’s another one gone.”
Back in the 1980s and early ’90s little was known about the disease originally dubbed “the gay plague,” except that within weeks — sometimes within mere days or hours — of being diagnosed, tens of thousands of once-healthy and vibrant individuals withered and died. Many in the beginning were transgender women.
“You could go real fast,” adds Dee Dee Chamblee, another transgender woman in Atlanta. “You could have a cold one day and go the same day. It wasn’t no ‘have a cold today and maybe you die next week.’ It was like, ‘You have a cold today, you die today.’ ”
“It was unbelievable,” recalls Jimmy Mack, a gay, HIV-positive man who now blogs for The Body. “I watched so many of my friends, previously healthy men, die horrible deaths from an unknown disease that was first called GRID and then finally AIDS.”
Mack, who says he was “given a death sentence” at 29, moved to New York City in 1981 and came down with his first “AIDS-defining illness” that same year. It was a trying time, those early days when death seemed to attack overnight.