We are continuing our coverage of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s. If you have not listened to part 1, we strongly encourage that you do so. We begin in 1983 when the crisis is finally gaining widespread medical attention. By now, the mystery disease had gone through several name changes. Starting with the misdiagnosis of pneumonia and the cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma, changing to the offensive ‘gay cancer/gay plague’, and finally landing on the well-known acronym of AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). At the dawn of 1983, 900 people had been officially diagnosed with AIDS, and time would later prove that this number was woefully inaccurate. Doctors in New York, San Francisco, Miami, and several other large cities had been treating patients for 5 years. Thirty states reported cases and 52 worldwide cases in 15 countries had been recorded so far.
Today we present the first half of our two-part series on the 1980s AIDS Crisis and the way the epidemic unfolded in America during the first five years it was uncovered. There are few moments in history that have been darker for our community than the decade between 1980 and 1990. Almost every single LGBTQ+ person connected to the queer world watched someone they love die of the disease and most people watched countless of their siblings suffer. As if the horror of the disease itself were not enough, the way the crisis was portrayed to the world only stoked the fires of homophobia and created a bias that blocked medical help and prevented research funding.
Before we continue, we want to add a trigger warning and even encourage you to return to this episode later if you are not in a good mental health state. We are continuing on with our coverage of the AIDS crisis as it is long overdue and we want to remind everyone of, not only why we celebrate, but why we march. We want to remind others of why we rally, and protest, and riot, and fight to be heard and seen. As important as it is to dance and parade down the streets, it is equally important to remember where we came from. And to acknowledge the work we still have to do. In many respects, 2020 PRIDE much more resembles the early PRIDE years and not the celebrations we have taken for granted.
As a last piece of business, we would like to acknowledge three of our main sources upfront. The most influential reference of our research was the 1987 And the Band Played On by gay journalist Randy Shilts. Shilts lived and reported throughout the AIDS epidemic and his book is widely credited for helping to turn the tide of silence surrounding the disease in the 1980s. It is emotional and raw in some parts yet equally thorough and pragmatic in other places. Most importantly, And the Band Played On expresses the anger and outrage of those who watched the epidemic unfold and yet saw that no one would listen. And no one knew this better than Shilts who lived in the queer community and was the only journalist in the entire Nation to report on the epidemic full-time. On the day Shilts submitted his final draft of the book he was officially diagnosed with HIV and would die of AIDS 7 years later on February 17, 1994. The book itself would go on to become a best-seller and later turned into the widely popular HBO movie created under the same title.
However, despite its monumental achievements and lasting legacy, the book was written in the height of the crisis. Therefore, it did not have the benefit of hindsight nor the gift of time which allows for better understanding and perspective. Because of this, Shilts inadvertently created the myth of ‘patient zero’ which not only affect people’s perception of the AIDS epidemic and the Gay community but also has affected the way we have viewed and classified disease outbreaks ever since. A hunt for “the outbreak patient” or “patient zero” creates a misconception of how illness actually travels and infects a group of people. There are other claims made in Shilts book that reflected the science and medicine of the time but that since have been disproved. A response to these issues was published exactly 30 years later and is the second maid reference for our research. Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic by Richard A. McKay is used as our backup source on much of this information.
Finally, our third major reference will be used mostly in the second half of our two-part series. Left Behind- Black America: A Neglected Priority in the Global AIDS Epidemic is a 56-page booklet published by the Black AIDS Institute in 2008. It addresses the silence that has continued to surround the Black community in regard to the AIDS crisis compounded by racism, homophobia, and AIDS stigma. We would also suggest the book The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS and Black America by Jacob Levenson. Unfortunately, we did not have enough access to the book to put it as one of our main sources. And now, with our main references credited, let us begin the darkest tale in modern queer history.
“AIDS” the bold, single-word title took up half of the front cover of the August 1985 Newsweek Magazine. Underneath was a picture of dying actor Rock Hudson and script that read:
“It is the Nation’s worst public-health problem. No one has ever recovered from the disease, and the number of cases is doubling every year. Now fears are growing that the AIDS epidemic may spread beyond gays and other high-risk groups to threaten the population at large.”
Reading that cover one would assume this was the first time anyone had been warned about AIDS. That this was a new virus and the public was being alerted to the discovery. In truth, America was years into the epidemic with doctors warning of the disease as early as 1979 and the CDC being notified in 1981. By the time this cover was printed recorded numbers at the CDC showed 12,067 peopled diagnosed and half of those (6,079) had already died of AIDS. But what is more horrifying, is the fact that due to understaffing, bigotry, and pure apathy those numbers were grossly undercalculated. By the end of 1987, just two years later, 50,280 people would be diagnosed with AIDS, and 47,993 of those counted would be dead. 
The origins of AIDS will never fully be known as is the case with any virus, yet there is a solid theory in place. In 1999 researchers discovered a strain of HIV-1 in subspecies of chimpanzees – the red-capped mangabeys and greater spot-nosed monkeys. While these smaller monkeys were immune to the disease, their chimp, and human cousins are not so lucky. The spread of the virus came first through the natural food chain. The larger Chimpanzees ate the smaller monkeys becoming infected with the disease, and later, human hunters ate the infected chimpanzees. Though confirmation would not come until the late 90s, bias, and racism against Africans as the so-called ‘creators’ of AIDS has continued to play out over the last 40 years. Much the same way the Chinese are somehow blamed for Corona-virus and depicted as rabid, bat-eating, monsters who deliberately spread the illness.
Many researchers have proposed that AIDS originated around 1920, but the earliest blood sample of AIDS in a human is from 1959. The sample came from a resident in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. From there the disease spread across the continent and later into the Caribbean, no doubt through ocean trade routes and the sex industry. In the 1960s, AIDS began to hit the country of Haiti when several officials who had been in the Congo returned home. By 1970, the disease had lodged in New York City, one of the largest international travel stops in the world. Over the next decade, AIDS would slowly cross the continent taking residence in several large cities and particularly in America’s gay districts.
In order to understand how the epidemic unfolded in America, one must understand what the queer world looked like in the late 70s. After the Stonewall riots of 1969, a revolution swept the country like never before with annual marches and parades. The DSM removed homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, a few large corporations began to show support for gay and lesbian employees, and many local laws in large cities banned discrimination. Twenty-eight states and provinces of America repealed their sodomy laws between 1970-1980. Though 3 states reinstated the sodomy bans a year later (Arkansas, Idaho, and Utah) and a few made stipulations that the bans were only lifted for heterosexuals and not homosexuals. Still, no one could deny that gay rights were becoming a prominent issue in America.
So prominent were gay activists in certain cities that public officials dared not make a move without queer consent. This was especially true in the Gay Meccas of New York City and San Francisco, which consequently would also evolve into the epicenters of the AIDS crisis in America. In his book, And The Band Played On, Shilts offers these cities as a direct contrast to one another both in their approach to LGBTQ+ Rights and in their approach to the epidemic. Though New York had been the place of Stonewall, it was not the leader of Gay freedom that many believed.
Most New York Gays enjoyed their liberties, power, and parties in the Upper eastside of Manhattan, only traveling to places like Greenwich village when they wanted a night out in the gay bars. And even then, by the late 70s, there were plenty of so-called ‘respectable’ gay joints in wealthier parts of town. The wider needs of poor queer residents were left behind as white gays enjoyed the new freedom to have sex without fear of arrest. Fire Island was a hotbed of white, male, gay privilege where most summer residents cared more about how many conquests they could have than how many legal rights they could obtain. And sadly, it was their own privilege and lack of concern that would keep them exposed and vulnerable to the disease for much longer.
On the other side of the country, San Francisco had evolved into a Gay Utopia – as much as was possible during that era. The city had a long history in the queer revolution, birthing pre-Stonewall unrest, and civil disobedience. It was in San Francisco that the New Years’ Eve Raid of 65 happened (later called the Stonewall of San Francisco), and where the Compton Cafeteria Riot took place. As well as the White Night Riots a decade later after the passing of a lenient sentence on Harvey Milk assassinator Dan White.
But it was exactly this history of rebellion that brought about a social and political conscience in the LGBTQ+ community. Whereas many queer people across the country held little hope of having any type of political clout; in San Francisco, the gays ruled the day. This was the city where the first openly gay candidate Jose Sarria had run for city council in 1961. And it was the city that had finally elected the first openly gay official in 1977 when Harvey Milk was voted onto the Board of Supervisors. As a whole, San Fran was one of the few cities in the country that not only extended a few gay rights to its citizens but also lent open support to the community. And that was more than one could find in most other locations across the nation or around the World.
However, even in politically minded San Francisco most queer people – especially most white queer people – believed that this was as good as it got. They had fought hard for the right to live with their partners, to be open about their sexuality in their spaces, and to sleep with whoever they wanted. And while the rest of the world might not be on board, in places like New York, Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, and a few other major cities many gays and lesbians DID have these rights. Things were not perfect, in fact, they were still especially difficult for Black and Brown queer people as well as trans and gender non-conforming individuals. But as the 70s wound down many Gays and Lesbians seemed to want to take a break and simply bask in the rights that they had earned.
Bathhouses peaked in their sexual activity and many Gay bars often became glorified fuck rooms after a certain hour of the night. Drugs and poppers ran wild and Bathhouses couldn’t keep the cans of Crisco stocked fast enough. Condoms were a joke and lube was only for those who had a medical condition. There was certainly judgment from many, even some in the gay community – who were labeled as prudes. But it’s also important to remember that sexual rights were all gays had at this time. Even in progressive cities like New York and San Francisco, LGBTQ+ people could still legally be fired, evicted, denied health benefits, and of course, they had no rights to all the legal benefits that came with marriage. All they were legally allowed to do was have sex, and so they did.
Throughout 1978 and 1979 men began to arrive in clinics with mysterious illnesses that made no sense. A perfectly healthy man in his late 20s or early 30s seemed to deteriorate overnight as one rare disease after another ravaged his body. It seemed that as soon as one illness was cured or treated, another would take its place. At the time, the cases were few and spread out across the country, so doctors were not aware that several of their peers were experiences the same baffling cases. Remember, these were the days before the internet, and people couldn’t connect via message boards or a medical forum the way they can today. The only way to track these cases was through the official submission of the case to a medical group or the CDC. And this was only done when a doctor suspected a disease might become widespread.
A new decade dawned in 1980, Ronald Reagan became president and America swung hard to the conservative right. Doctors in major cities were beginning to worry as they started to see bizarre cases of rare illness more frequently. The most common diagnosis was Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS), which in itself was a very rare form of cancers and almost unheard of in the demographic suddenly coming down with the disease. KS first originated in the Mediterranean a century before and while it had made its way to around the globe, less than 800 cases had been reported in the previous 100 years. And what was more bizarre was that while almost all of those cases were reported in elderly, Italian, and Jewish men in poor health, the men being diagnosed now were of all young and healthy. It just didn’t make sense that a disease that had laid dormant for so long would suddenly take off and in such a dramatic turn from its previous trend.
Yet the signs were all there. Patients with Kaposi’s sarcoma developed purple lesions slowly, across their bodies. The lesions themselves were painless and while the cancer did weaken the body, usually the victim died of other causes. However, these young men were deteriorating overnight and it made no sense. Dr. Linda Laubenstein in New York City met her first patient in 1979, Rick Wellikoff. She thought the diagnosis was a fluke, or possibly a misdiagnosis for the time. Yet just a few weeks later a colleague at the VA hospital in NYC called her up to tell her he too had a diagnosis. It seemed a bizarre coincidence that both victims were young men and both identified a gay.
Across the country, in San Francisco, Dr. Selma Dritz was concerned about the growing cases of gastrointestinal disease among queer people. She had spent the previous decade working to combat the Hepatitis wave that had hit the city’s LGBTQ+ community. And now there seemed to be another bug getting everyone infected. Dr. Dritz was a strong ally to the queer community, even lovingly referred to as “the den mother of the gays” by her children. Her devotion to the LGBTQ+ had made her one of the foremost experts on Gay health. Yet the Dr. was exhausted by the communities refusal to engage in safe sex.
Dritz ran a VD clinic in the heart of San Francisco (VD stands for venereal disease – an outdated term for STI). Of the 70,000 patients, they saw each year, 80% identified as gay. The fact that most Sexually Transmitted Illnesses now had treatment available made the increase in STI’s even more frequent. Young men would come in, get their medication, and before the treatment was even finished they would be back in the bathhouses. In general, the lack of sex education was a widespread problem across all demographics in the U.S. But in major cities where sex was more readily available, STI’s found a haven. And while it was frustrating to have her advice fall on deaf ears, that wasn’t why Selma Dritz was so concerned in the fall of 1980.
The doctor worried about the consequences of what would happen if something that couldn’t be treated suddenly found it’s way to San Francisco. Addressing a group of colleagues that in October of that year she warned:
Too much is being transmitted. We’ve got all thee diseases going unchecked. There are so many opportunities for transmission that if something new gets loose here, we’re going to have hell to pay”
But Dr. Dritz was seen as an alarmist who just didn’t understand that the gays would always be this way.
In November of 1980, a gay man named Ken Horne visited Dr. Jim Groundwater to ask about the purple spots developing on his thigh and right nipple. Groundwater noticed that Horne’s lymph nodes were swollen and heard the man tell of how he had experienced one illness after another. The doctor ran some tests and noticed there was something wrong with Ken’s white blood cells. He ran more tests pricking and poking Ken and found that the patients immune system wasn’t responding. It was a baffling scenario the doctor had never before witnessed, so he sent the blood out for tests.
On December 23, 1980, Dr. Laubenstein’s patient Rick Wellikoff passed away in New York City with his partner by his side. Across the country, several other heartbroken lovers and friends mourned their first Christmas without their loved ones who had died of mysterious causes. Some doctors were beginning to whisper that there was a new disease going around in homosexual men. Yet the concept made no sense to the medical professionals. Illness is no respecter of persons, how was it then that so many of their queer patients were suddenly getting ill with the same set of symptoms? Purple lesions and swollen lymph nodes, followed by a break down in the immune system, and finally shortness and slow agonizing death. More importantly, why couldn’t they figure out how to help their patients?
On February 1, 1981, CDC technician Sandy Ford received an order for pentamidine. It was a rare, controlled drug used to treat a rare form of pneumonia known as Pneumocystis. Typically, children with leukemia caught this pneumonia while they were battling cancer or occasionally adults being treated with chemo made come down with the bug. Because of its rarity, Sandy Ford was the only person in the country who filled orders for the medication. Doctors always put the reason they needed the medicine but on this order, the Dr. had left the field blank. This annoyed Sandy who made a mental note yet filled the order anyway.
A month later Sandy received another order of pentamidine from the same doctor. Again there was no explanation and she huffed as she sent filled his request. By April, Sandy Ford was calling the doctor herself wondering why in the hell he needed 5 orders of pentamidine in the last 8 weeks. The doctor told her he had not one, but two, cases of the rare pneumonia. At the time Ford thought the doctor was just incompetent. On April 24, Dr. Jim Groundwater called the CDC about his patient Ken Horne, making him the first reported patient of the unfolding epidemic. However, no one at the CDC was interested and Horne’s case, and the conversation was never recorded. Yet Sandy Ford was receiving more orders from other doctors and decided to draw up a memo. On April 28, 1981, technician Sandy Ford officially alerted the CDC to the possibility of a new disease.
On June 5, 1981 the CDC Monthly published a summarized report by Dr. Michael Gottlieb of Los Angeles. Gottlieb had been trying to get his report on ‘Pneumocystis Pneumonia in Homosexual Men – Los Angeles” published in the New England Journal of Medicine. But the journal had told the doctor it would be 6 months at least before they could publish the article and there was no guarantee it would pass the peer-reviewed tests. So Gottlieb went with the next best thing and had his report published in the CDC monthly. The CDI took out the titles part about ‘homosexual men’ and simply retitled Pneumocystis Pneumonia – Los Angels. Still, there was a very important sentence in that report that would later determine the reactions and treatment of the disease. It read:
“The fact that these patients were all homosexuals suggests an association between some aspect of homosexual lifestyle or disease acquired through sexual contact and Pneumocystis pneumonia and this population”[1-pg67]
The implications of the study swept through the medical field and the LGBTQ+ community, while most others ignored the small report. Some gay doctors were outraged, knowing the further stigma this would place on the gay community. And they weren’t wrong, within weeks the new cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma and Pneumocystis pneumonia were being labeled the “gay cancer”. But worse, the study inadvertently deflected attention from several other non-homosexual cases that had started to spring up in and around large cities. Dr. Mary Guinan reported several cases in drug users in New York City but her reports were dismissed as not being related to “gay cancer”. Not only that but many in the Haitian immigrant community were showing similar symptoms but again, were dismissed as unrelated.
Even with strictly homosexual cases reported, within 4 weeks of the CDC report, 108 cases were phoned in and 43 of the subjects were already dead. The news startled a few in the gay community who had already lost someone to the mysterious illness. Some men such as Larry Kramer and Paul Popham in New York and Bill Krause in San Francisco began to speak out about the disease. But they were overwhelmingly drowned out by the rest of the queer community. Most were afraid that if a gay disease were true and if it did spread through sex, that the few liberties queers had earned would suddenly evaporate. Many even stood convinced that it would be just a matter of time before the Reagan administration rounded all the homos up and locked them in camps. It had been less than 40 years since Hitler’s concentration camps held gay prisoners stamped with the pink triangle. The memory was fresh and terrifying.
In his book, Randy Shilts outrage towards the debauchery of the gay community at the time seeps through. But even though his book was published just 7 years after the initial outbreak, he still had the hindsight that time grants. It’s easy to pass judgment on what the queer community should have done when we can clearly see the picture. But in a time where a gay man could be murdered just by leaving the city limits of San Francisco or New York, it’s easy to see that the LGBTQ+ had a hard time knowing who to believe. Especially since many gay doctors and health officials were playing down the disease for fear of stigma and bias.
And as a whole, most people in the country ignored ‘gay cancer’ completely. So life went on as usual for queer city life. The bathhouses of the Castro District gathered around 3,000 patrons a week with weekends attracting as many 800 men in one Bath. Fire Island filled up that summer as it had every year with the wealthiest and prettiest of queer patrons. When a few men went around collecting money for ‘gay cancer’ research, they raised a menial $6,635 from the country’s elite gay men, and a good chunk of those funds came from the organizers themselves.
For his part, Jim Curran of CDC headquarters in Atlanta was doing his best to track down the origins of the disease in order to know how to warn the public. A difficult job considering the CDC budget had already been heavily slashed the Reagan administration. Once again history showed a President who didn’t have the foresight to consider the impacts of a national epidemic and an underfunded disease control department. Despite his limited budget, Curran traveled to the cities where major outbreaks were happening and visited the bars and bathhouses. For a while, many suspected the cancer was triggered by a new chemical in poppers. CDC agents were sent to discreetly round up various brands of the popular drug and bring them back for testing. The popper theory was quickly put to rest by researchers, yet the theory floated around for years and was used to justify ignoring safe sex. People would rather drop the poppers than put a condom on.
On November 30, 1981, Ken Horne, the first patient reported to the CDC, passed away from a disease that still did not have an official name. By now, a few gay newspapers were discussing the disease and occasionally a national newspaper would pick up an article and bury it in the back pages. As a whole, all media – gay or straight – referred to the disease as the ‘gay plague’ or ‘gay cancer’. In December Dr. Jacques Leibowitch read the CDC report by Dr. Gottlieb and realized that some of the cases he had seen in Paris matched Dr. Gottlieb’s report. Though he found the fact that the disease was classified as a ‘gay disease’ very odd. Randy Shilts wrote Leibowitch experience as such:
How very American, he thought, to look at a disease as homosexual or heterosexual, as if viruses had the intelligence to choose between different inclinations of human behavior. Those Americans are simply obsessed with sex.[1 – pg103]
That same month in Bronx, New York, Dr. Arye Rubinstein began to draft his report on 5 black infants that had the same symptoms reported in what the media labeled the ‘gay plague’. In his opinion, this proved that the ‘gay plague’ had nothing to do with being gay at all. Here he had 5 newborns who had contracted the disease in their mother’s womb. He knew that three of the mothers were drug users which pointed to the fact that the disease could spread through blood. Something much more deadly and dangerous was at play and the stigma of ‘gay cancer’ was hindering real medical progress. Rubinstein submitted his proposal to present the findings at a conference for the American Academy of Pediatrics. But he was shot down and quietly derided in the community as having lost his mind. After all, babies couldn’t get ‘gay cancer’, everyone knew that.
The darker truth was that if doctors and researchers kept this a ‘gay cancer’ then it would be acceptable for them to drag their feet on finding proper treatment. If this was just a disease for the queers then they could justifiably turn away gay patients and disregard their pleas for help. For their part, more people were beginning to mobilize in queer communities though it was still a slim minority. Bobbi Campbell in San Francisco was the first person to come out openly as having ‘gay cancer’ and became the poster boy for the movement.
In New York, Larry Kramer wrote scathing articles to his queer siblings on the dangers of unprotected and frequent sex with strangers. But he was dismissed as an alarmist and homophobe. Said writer Robert Chesley:
“I think the concealed meaning of Kramer’s emotionalism is the triumph of guilt: that gay men deserve to die for their promiscuity…I am not downplaying the seriousness of Kaposi’s sarcoma. But something else is happening here, which is also serious: gay homophobia and anti-eroticism.”[1-pg108-109]
Kramer responded: “I’m not glorying in death. I am overwhelmed by it. The death of my friends. The death of whatever community there is here in New York. The death of any visible love.”[1-pg109] And the death was starting to become overwhelming, 2 cases of ‘gay cancer’ were being diagnosed every week in New York alone. So far groups in NYC had raised less than $12,000 for research and the government and states seemed completely uninterested in the growing disease. Newspapers were killing most stories because they saw that the very topic of gay cancer, and gay cancer from gay sex no less, incredibly distasteful. In 1981, one major News Show, Good Morning America, gave the budding epidemic any air time. CDC director Jim Curran was given 150 seconds to address the disease. At the end of the year, 152 official cases were reported in 15 states but those number weren’t even close to being accurate.
By January 1982 ‘gay cancer’ was given a slightly more official name through the term GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). While the acronym certainly sounded better than ‘gay plague’, it still ignored the glaring truth that this was not a gay disease. Doctors in impoverished areas were seeing high spikes in the disease among people of all orientations, genders, and ages. As is often common, the lack of resources combined with institutionalized racism allowed for higher rates of GRID among black and brown communities. People who were showing the most signs of the disease were Haitian immigrants, sex workers, drug users, and gay men.
The early AIDS epidemic is often painted as a white, gay crisis. The truth is, it was deliberately portrayed this way partly as a homophobic attack on the queer community, and partly out of complete apathy for Blacks, drug uses, and sex workers. By showcasing AIDS as a gay disease not only could the media, the government, and LGBTQ opponents fan the fires of hate, but they could also blatantly ignore as other ‘undesirables’ silently wasted away. And it wasn’t for a lack of knowledge, cases of GRID in Haitians in Miami had been tracked and reported to the CDC since 1981. However, officials refused to believe the Black men were not gay and assumed the black women were prostitutes.
In San Francisco, Dr. Selma Dritz was overwhelmed. She was the first doctor to officially begin tracking the disease and now she saw there were 150 cases of GRID in New York City alone. And San Francisco was on a projected track to mirror New York within a year. Dritz was also one of the first people to recognize and adamantly insist that GRID was a sexually transmitted disease. Now she understood it could also be transmitted through blood. Yet no matter how loud she and other doctors, such as respected physician Marc Conant, yelled about the dangers of unsafe sex, the community refused to listen. And the local government refused to intervene or educate the public.
In July of 1982, doctors, researchers, and medical officials gathered to discuss the disease that would not be ignored. Already there were studies proving that GRID could be transmitted through blood, though blood banks refused to acknowledge this fact which would mean they would have to screen their blood donors. And worse, it meant that they had most certainly infected someone the disease through a blood transfusion. But even though blood banks denied the truth, most officials at least agreed this was no longer a ‘gay cancer’. The disease needed a more fitting and encompassing name. After much debate, they settled on the term AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
Aside from establishing a uniformed term for the new disease, 1982 saw little progress around the AIDS crisis as infection rates climbed. Funding was a nightmare backed by a lying government that talked out the side of its mouth. Officials declared that AIDS was their “number one priority”. Claiming that more than $2 million was dedicated to the disease. While $2 million directly given to AIDS treatment and research would already have been woefully short, the truth is that ‘$2 million’ was given to departments that researched all cancer and could also study AIDS. At best, many doctors working directly with AIDS patients received about $100,000 in federal funding for the year. Which was enough to cover a doctor’s salary, one nurse, and a few basic supplies.
Another development of 1982 was the launch of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York. The organization focused on social work, helping AIDS patients find a hospital that would treatment, helping them find apartments that would accept them – since most landlords stopped renting to AIDS patients. The GMHC also provided support groups, ran a hotline, and offered resources to anyone who wanted them. However, they faced many obstacles just in getting the word out. For instance, they had to be careful about putting their organization name on the front of any material because just by carrying a pamphlet or postcard with the words GAY a person could be outed. Some of the biggest fights in the organization erupted over this very issue. While Larry Kramer, a founder, and board member, believed it was important for the organization to be open, GMHC president Paul Popham believed the opposite. Eventually, Larry would be fired from the board for being too outspoken against the bathhouses and unprotected sex.
One final moment of 1982 really showed the contrast between the lack of concern and funding around AIDS and what was considered more ‘general population’ health concerns (a.k.a heterosexual public health). In October the city of Chicago experienced a scare when someone tampered with Tylenol packages and poured cyanide into the capsules. The federal government sent 1,100 people to test Tylenol capsules. Johnson and Johnson spent $100 million alone in addition to immense State and Federal funding. Within 5 weeks lawmakers had passed regulations that enforced tamper-resistant packaging. The New York Times published 54 pieces on the subject. Seven people died of the capsules. Conversely, 634 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS, and 260 were dead. But there was no funding, no rush for regulations and testing, no media buzz, only silence.
On December 9th, Mayor Diane Feinstein approached the podium of city hall to make her announcement. She was vetoing the ‘domestic partners ordinance’ which would have legally given queer couples the right to file a civil union and collect the same benefits as married heterosexual couples. “On a personal level” Feinstein began, “this legislation causes me deep personal anguish. I would like to be able to sign legislation that recognizes the needs of single persons, but such legislation must not divide our community.”[1-pg204] The news devastated the San Francisco LGBTQ+ community. Once again their relationships were reduced to nothing more than sex. With the veto, Feinstein might as well have said “fuck your brains out, just don’t think your love is legitimate”. That night the bathhouses were flooded as patrons, rejected once again, threw themselves with abandon at the one solace they were allowed. In two months the national AIDS cases had risen from 634 to 900.
We will return next week with the second half of the AIDS Crisis in the 1980s. Your recommended resource this week is And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. You can also watch the movie, based on the book, for free on YouTube right now, though this may be a temporary feature. YouTube also allows you to rent the two-hour-long movie if you don’t’ have the chance to watch if for free. And if you haven’t bought any pride merch, this is probably your last chance to get some before the end of PRIDE month. However, PRIDE colors are never out of style so feel free to check out our merch shop 365 days a year.
For almost a full century Hollywood has battled its love/hate relationship with queer communities and Hollywood’s double standard. On the one hand they’d be lost without us; after all, we gave them Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and so many more.