When Tom Gillman and his partner opened Hardware, a small clothing shop on Melrose Avenue in late-1970s Los Angeles, it was an instant hit. And having spent weeks at a time in New York’s Fire Island Pines the previous six summers, their decision to open a seasonal shop there was a no-brainer.
In an era of rampant homophobia, Fire Island Pines was a gay mecca — a summer sanctuary where young gay men reveled on the beaches, boardwalks and at parties, unconstrained by the need to hide their identities. The two California men signed a three-year lease and opened Hardware @ the Pines in 1979, and with a wellheeled clientele that included fashion-industry leaders from all over the world, their first two summers were wildly successful.
But when Gillman and his partner arrived to prepare the business for its third season, just before Memorial Day weekend in 1981, something was amiss. A few stalwarts of the Pines community had died of unknown causes before the season began, and their absence was painfully conspicuous. “Throughout the Pines, there was a constant whisper of a ‘gay plague,’” Gillman recalls. That summer, thanks to his store’s close proximity to the site of the daily “tea dance” — a late-afternoon tradition in which hundreds of scantily clad revelers packed together and swayed to the thumping disco beat — Gillman remembers seeing several men who in prior years could be found in the center of the action suddenly taking to the sidelines.
“They watched all the fun, making sure they weren’t noticed,” Gillman says. “If our eyes met for a second, they would look away. They dressed differently from the usual tea dance drag — maybe wearing long pants or long-sleeved shirts instead of shorts and tank tops. They concealed their faces with hats. They were, of course, covering up their Kaposi’s lesions while not wanting to miss being a little part of the heaven that Fire Island Pines unabashedly was before 1981.”
On the other side of the country, Dr. Michael Gottlieb, a 32-year-old immunologist a few months into his career at UCLA, was frustrated. Recruited from Stanford, where he had just completed his fellowship training, Dr. Gottlieb had transferred his laboratory research program to L.A. But in the new environment, the experiments weren’t working. Dr. Gottlieb, who preferred patient care, anyway, began to spend more time on clinical pursuits.
In early 1981, as part of his efforts to teach his UCLA trainees about immunology, Dr. Gottlieb asked one of his fellows to poke around the wards for a patient whose illness showed unusual immunological features. The fellow learned from a medical intern of a previously healthy 31-year-old gay man who had come to the emergency room with weight loss, candidiasis (thrush) and persistent, unexplained fevers that ultimately developed into Pneumocystis carinii, a pneumonia previously understood to present only in individuals with severely compromised immune systems.