The Best of Times/The Worst of Times/The ‘80s

Deborah Batterman
Tell Your Story
Published in
5 min readJun 2, 2021

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July 1985. I’m behind the counter of an East Hampton design shop that husband opened with the man who would have been his partner had he not died. It’s Saturday night. We play Frank Sinatra music, always a draw.

It had all the markings of a good plan, set in motion by Keith, my husband’s assistant in his NYC interior design business. Keith spent half his week in the city and the other half in Sag Harbor where he lived with his life partner, Peter, who had a thriving hair salon. The Hamptons had plenty of antiques shops, but nothing focused on contemporary design. My husband liked the idea.

They found a space for rent, gave it a name: Farmhouse, Inc., a gallery of craft/tech. That was February 1985. Another person might rethink signing a lease with someone just diagnosed with HIV. But that other person would not have the spirit of the man I married. By springtime Keith had full-blown AIDS but was holding steady. We had a Memorial Day opening bash filled with friends (including local luminaries), and all the promise of a creative new venture.

By early July Keith was gone.

Ready for the ‘80s

The ’80s were nothing if not a threshold decade. The Village People ushered it in with an exuberant anthem song. Hippies took a back seat to Yuppies. E.T. cast a spell, the Berlin Wall came down. Keith Haring had his first solo exhibition. MTV made its debut. We were gripped by a royal wedding, fairy-tale style, a woman became the first Supreme Court justice, another woman the first vice presidential candidate.

There was glamour and, yes, greed. There was Ronald Reagan.There was a growing gay activism amidst hints of a mysterious gay plague with symptoms so unimaginable except in the worst of science fiction. Who could fathom how awful it would end up being? “People lived larger and louder than they had just years before,” observed Frank Bruni in the opening essay of an April 17, 2018 issue of the New York Times T Magazine focused on the early ’80s in New York. “They also died younger.”

Couture shows were marked by an ’80s revival in fashion. Tony Kushner’s epic play, Angels in America, with its undercurrent of secrets and lies, love and death was back on Broadway. And all this happening at a time when the personification of greed-is-good finagled his way into the White House.

Does history truly repeat itself? Or does it more accurately give us context for a déjà vu moment, a thing or two we can pluck from an eerily similar past to get us through the present? Who could have imagined that 2018, with its whiff of ’80s-in-the-air nostalgia, would end up being a prelude for what would hit us, come 2020?

It was sheer synchronicity that my novel, a coming-of-age story rooted in the ’80s, would be published in 2018. At the heart of Just Like February was a question I just couldn’t shake. How did we go from the sex/drugs/rock’n’ roll ’60s to the sex-as-death ‘80s? More and more a sense of innocence lost took hold. I pictured a girl, a beloved uncle, the mysteries surrounding him. I pictured her born in the summer of ’69, coming of age in the ’80s, a time when the mysteries give way to tragedy.

Timing played its hand in another novel rooted in the ’80s, published within months of mine. Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, a compelling narrative of friendship and survival, begins pretty much at the point where Just Like February ends. Taken together, I can’t help seeing them as painting a before and after picture of a decade during which the face of innocence was forever changed.

It’s a Sin

The popularity of the recent HBO Max series, It’s a Sin — in the midst of a pandemic to boot — is nothing if not a reminder of the unremitting hold the ’80s maintain on us. The story of a friendship between four gay men and a woman during the early days of AIDS/HIV in London, the show broke viewing records when it was first aired in the UK.

Episode after episode, you’re pulled into the highs and lows of a decade that had us feeling so alive when it began and so filled with a sense of dread as it moved on. The melancholy spin that Pet Shop Boys brought to the dance-all-night ’80s echoes through the series, which is riveting even if you think you know where it’s ultimately going. The U.K. was a few years behind the U.S. in owning up to AIDS, and its particular brand of homophobia has its horrifying moments. Britain’s Public Health Law of 1984 has one character virtually locked in a hospital room when he’s diagnosed with AIDS, no visitors allowed. A family makes a bonfire in its yard of another character’s clothing and mattress and memorabilia when he passes.

At the same time, a sense of hope, uneasy as it gets, and living life to its fullest carries this band of friends who are roommates in a London flat lovingly christened the Pink Palace through the best and worst times of the decade. Midway through the series, when Jill, the emotional ballast of the group, and Ritchie, the most spirited, have the opportunity to purchase the flat, I could not help but feel a pang.

Numbers are numbing. If there’s anything we’ve learned from both the AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics, it’s that individual stories, fictional and otherwise, make us pay the most attention.

As it happens, It’s a Sin first aired in Britain at the end of January and debuted on HBO Max in February — just in time for LGBT History Month in the U.K. The month-long celebration marks the repeal of a British law in existence from 1988 to 2003, that inhibited local councils and schools from promoting the acceptance of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle,

And while Pride Month is rooted in the June 28, 1969 Stonewall Riots, it was during the ’80s that activism gained steam. Taking to the streets in what would seem an outgrowth of ‘60s-style demonstrations, demands to be heard got louder in those pre-social-media days. ACT UP was born. Demands for change got stronger. We also have the ’80s to thank for the way it took protest branding to a new level. The powerful, provocative Silence=Death poster/slogan paved the way for pink pussy hats and Black Lives Matter shirts.

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Deborah Batterman
Tell Your Story

Author of JUST LIKE FEBRUARY, a novel (Spark Press), SHOES HAIR NAILS, short stories (Uccelli Press), and BECAUSE MY NAME IS MOTHER, essays.