Whenever I see a medical face mask today, I immediately think of a photograph on the cover of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority Report from July 1983. The cover depicts a white family—father, mother, and two children—all wearing masks. The headline reads “Homosexual Diseases Threaten American Families.” While it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a “Chinese Viruses Threaten American Families” graphic produced today, the medical masks accompanying the xenophobic sentiment would be. Members of today’s libertarian Right are more likely to take a chainsaw to a surgical mask, viewing them as symbols of an alarming expansion of government power and scientific expertise, than to wear one, even to allay a fear of “foreign” germs.
I’ve studied and written about the AIDS crisis in North America and I’ve tried consciously not to superimpose pandemics of the past onto either HIV/AIDS or COVID-19. This should be straightforward. I don’t think of history as being necessarily edifying or as offering up clear lessons for the present. The two pandemics don’t share the striking parallels that other disease comparisons elicit: Coronavirus is not always physically disfiguring as AIDS often was, it does not elicit disgust in its beholders as AIDS sometimes could, and it is not freighted with sexual or “lifestyle” transmission.
And yet, this image of medical masks as symbols of homophobia haunts me. They are affixed so firmly in my mind to the Christian Right, and a cynical deployment of a dystopian image that places gay people as being outside of American citizenship, that it is mind-boggling for me to see masks as an iconic part of a material culture of Black Lives Matters protests today.
Maybe every generation develops its own relationship to, and ideas about, germs and contagion that limits our ability to understand contemporary medical threats in new ways. Perhaps we are all always “thinking with the banisters of the past,” as Hannah Arendt put it, and not taking reality on its own terms. Maybe my generation has been so shaped by AIDS, or more accurately, public health responses that aimed to quell fears about contagion and the attendant prejudices that often surrounded them, that I can’t help but see a fear of germs as an inherent act of discrimination and intolerance. I am predisposed to be wary of new habits and ways of being that will develop in the face of novel diseases.