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.
There were many reasons why the number of deaths was so underreported. For one, the very nature of AIDS made it difficult to diagnose. Because the virus breaks down the immune system, the individual usually dies of a different illness. And because there was not a lot of knowledge of AIDS at the time, many people who had died in previous years had a different cause of death marked on their medical record. Another reason the numbers were so deflated was due to the stigma around AIDS. Many patients who had AIDS requested a different cause of death be marked on their death certificates. As one wealthy businessman told a nurse, “Better to die of cancer than to die of AIDS”.
But the final reason the numbers weren’t reported was due to medical and professional refusal to acknowledge AIDS in any person who was not a homosexual. Even though the very thought of a virus targeting a person because of their sexual orientation defied all science and medicine, officials insisted that only gays could get AIDS. Gays and Haitians anyway – another group that politicians and medical leaders didn’t mind slapping the stigma upon. It was frustrating that officials ignored the studies of doctors such as Dr. Rubenstein, who by now had recorded close to 20 cases of AIDS in children, and Dr. Guinan who had been tracking AIDS in drug users since 1981.
But most alarmingly, it was incredibly dangerous to ignore that heterosexuals could get infected. Since 1982, several physicians had warned that AIDS could be transmitted through blood transfusions. But blood banks were not interested in the news. If they acknowledged that AIDS could be passed by transfusion, then the banks would be between a rock and a hard place. Either they spent millions in bolstering and pre-screening blood donations, or they banned all gays from donating blood which tanked their annual donations by 7%. Ironically, while public health officials seemed to care little about the lives and well-being of queer people, they still needed their blood. And again, the stigma of believing that AIDS was a ‘gay disease’ allowed for plenty of heterosexual and ‘straight passing’ individuals to continue donating blood with no screening.
As the crisis approached the mid-1980s, two large obstacles seemed to stand in the way of proper AIDS education and safe sex promotion. The first obstacle being the obstinancy of public health officials to see AIDS as anything other than a gay exclusive virus. While the second obstacle came from the queer community itself as LGBTQ leaders refused to confront the rampant, rubber free orgies that took place in the bathhouses night after night. Any person who attempted to suggest the bathhouses should take a safer approach to sex was decried as a nazi with internalized homophobia.
Yet even though people claimed they didn’t believe in safe sex, their bravado fell away when no one else was around. A survey of 600 gay men in San Francisco found that 2/3rds of respondents had changed their sexual activity in at least a few ways since learning of AIDS. 15% said they stopped bottoming, 28% stopped rimming, and 5% stopped sex altogether. Still, there was also a knowledge of self-destruction that can be understood by those who faced such harsh, social rejection, and injustice. One respondent stated plainly: “Since I found out about AIDS, sometimes I get so frustrated that I have sex that I know I shouldn’t be having”.
The very nature of the disease and the government’s complete lack of care or even acknowledgment was enough for any person to throw up their hands in despair. The Reagan administration had repeatedly denied budget increases for AIDS research and AIDS treatment. As the President made it clear to his officials that he wasn’t going to waste any more time or money on the disease of the poor. Which is what AIDS had truly become in America. It wasn’t a gay disease, it was an impoverished, minority disease. In New Jersey, 44% of AIDS patients were drug users and 68% were Black or Latino. It seemed half of the nation believed AIDS was god’s judgment on homosexuals and the other half saw it as a way to wash away all the undesirables of the land. With any luck, Reagan could get his all-white, all Christian, all straight America.
And though the apathy was infuriating, what followed was horrifying. In May of 83, a report from the American Medical Association was released, warning about the possible ways AIDS could be transmitted. Later that day Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Health in Maryland made this statement:
If routine personal contact among family members in a household is enough to spread the illness, “then AIDS takes on an entirely new dimension”.
If the name, Dr. Fauci, sounds familiar to you that’s because he is the man heading the federal Corona-virus response. In his defense, Fauci has said repeatedly that his line was taken out of context. He spent the rest of the AIDS crisis fighting the epidemic and supporting the queer community. Unfortunately, the implication that AIDS could be spread through routine touch and ‘household contact’ was a lie that we continue to fight to this day. And while we’ve come a long way in the last several decades, when news stations shared that AIDS could be spread through casual touch the world erupted. Suddenly the heterosexuals felt threatened and the gay crisis was no longer a joke. Now the gays and the rest of the disease-ridden poor were a threat that must be avoided at all costs.
Nurses began to quit on the spot if forced to care for an AIDS patient, landlords evicted gay and Haitian residents immediately regardless of their health status. Black people marked clearly on job applications that they were not Haitian. Gangs of young, white men roved the streets looking to rid it of “plague-carrying faggots”. “If we don’t kill these fags, they’ll kill us with their fucking AIDS!” one attacker told the police. Some people became re-emboldened with open, racist jokes. Such as when CBS co-anchor Bill Kuris opened the company banquet with this line, “What’s the hardest part about having AIDS?… Trying to convince your wife that you’re Haitian”. The Moral Majority led by Jerry Falwell made a formal public statement: “We feel the deepest sympathy for AIDS victims, but I’m upset that the government is not spending more money to protect the general public from the gay plague!”. Reverend Walter Alexander gave a more vocal response to reporters: “I think we should do what the Bible says and cut their [homosexual] throat”.
Of course, there were also people trying to make money off of the suffering. Countless so-called cures were hocked to desperate victims. A patient could travel to Mexico for injections of every bizarre treatment imaginable. Lectures were given on testing the consistency of your Cum to measure one’s health. The post office stopped a scam that was charging victims $1,900 (over $6,000 today) for a ‘guaranteed cure for AIDS’. And one guy robbed a bank just by handing a teller a note that said he had AIDS. The girl was so afraid he would simply reach out and touch her that she shoved a wad of money over to him and ducked behind the barricade.
But most of the hysteria was brutally cruel. In October of 1983, a jet flew 2,781 miles from Gainesville Florida to San Francisco, California. At the airport, an ambulance met the jet and transported a patient to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Medics walked into the building, dropped the stretcher with a man on it onto the floor, and walked out. No one wanted to treat patients with AIDS. No one wanted to even try to treat patients with AIDS. And insurance sure as hell had no intention of paying the costs of a person dying with AIDS. So instead, they transported a dying man to the other side of the country to get rid of their problem. Just like their government, if they didn’t see the problem then maybe it would no longer exist.
1984 brought another election and the President who had yet to publicly acknowledge AIDS, who had slashed funding repeatedly, and who blocked resources and support for queer people and people of color would end up winning re-election in a landslide. By the end of 1983, more than 3,000 cases had been reported in the U.S., and researchers had discovered the unsettling truth of the disease’s long incubation period. Meaning, that it was almost certain that countless more people were walking around carrying the virus and had no idea. At the time there was no distinction between HIV and AIDS. No effective treatments had been found and no person had survived the disease. There was no question that a person would die of AIDS, only the question of when.
While it is easy to back Shilts reprimands against gay men’s sexual habits, it also important to remember that people still thought they could ‘spot’ AIDS in a person. So men looked for purple lesions on their partners and if they didn’t see any they assumed the individual was clean. They had no idea that they could be infected with the disease for more than 10 years and never show any signs. But horrifyingly, scientists realized this meant people had been carrying the disease, and spreading it, for at least 5 years before it began to show up in medical offices and clinics. This shock was compounded when Doctors and researchers began to realize just how much sex was happening in the bathhouses and gay party sites.
A July 1984 Los Angeles cluster study of homosexual men with AIDS revealed that most of the participants had over 1,000 sexual partners in their lifetime, many had as many as 2,000, and one outstanding individual had been with over 2,500 partners. Many of which he tracked in his journals that he gave to researchers to try and retrace his steps. The man was originally known as patient 57. Often referenced on medical charts with the letter O since he was originally from Outside Los Angeles, unlike the rest of the men in the LA cluster study. His name was Gaetan (Gay-tan) Dugas (Du-Ga), a flight attendant who hailed from Quebec and would go down in history as Patient Zero.
The infamy of patient zero stemmed from a clerical error turned media sensation. The letter O on typewriters at the time was the same as the number zero. When transcribing a lecture given on the cluster study and patient O, somewhere along the way the O became zero and with it the idea that patient 57 had actually originated the disease in America. This belief was perpetuated by Randy Shilts who saw the idea of Patient Zero as a fantastic selling point. He then built a story that intentionally painted the picture of Dugas as a narcissist deliberately spreading his AIDS to others.
Though Shilts admitted there was no way to know who had brought AIDS to the States, he also understood that every good story needs a villain. By casting Dugas as a monster, perhaps the journalist thought he could deflect from the hate directed at the so-called ‘innocent’ AIDS victims. Throughout his book, Rany Shilts portrays the idea of guilty ‘fast-lane’ gays who care only about sex versus the moral, monogamous gays that oppose that lifestyle. Yet the truth is, the monsters were those who watched a plague unfold and did nothing to stop that plague until it started to harm straight, white people. Monsters within and without the community, like when Larry Kramer discovered one of the Directors of the National Institutes of Health was gay. “Is this one of the reasons this institute has been so negligent with AIDS?” Larry demanded of the Director’s assistant, “Because the Director is in the closet?!”.
As AIDS became more widely known, gay men in prominent positions became quieter and quieter. There was quite a battle between openly gay men such as Bill Kraus and Larry Kramer and the powerful, closeted gay men of their cities. Bill and Larry despised the men for their lack of backbone as they openly spoke out about their sexuality and the AIDS crisis. Kramer had published a widely popular article in the gay community titled “1,112 and Counting” which spoke of the disease in very plain terms. Yet Kramer and his counterpart Bill Kraus did take for granted their fortunate circumstances to live openly. Most queer communities in large cities were enduring a wave of hate and hostility they hadn’t experienced in nearly 15 years. Everything that had been gained since Stonewall seemed to be slipping away. LGBTQ folks were finally becoming overwhelmed with the disease and the lack of governmental assistance. It seemed that no help would come until officials openly acknowledged this was more than a gay plague.
And by 1984 AIDS was beginning to ravage much more than just queer and minority communities. The Blood Bank’s refusal to screen blood donations had led to hundreds of hemophiliacs being infected as well as countless others who had transfusions during routine surgical procedures. Doctors such as Dritz, Conant, Rubenstein, and more were begging blood banks to screen their donors. The harder they pushed for screening, the harder the queer community pushed back. There was legitimate fear around blood screenings. What did that mean? Would those with so-called ‘gay blood’ be rounded up and put into camps? What would happen if there was a database of every person with the gay cancer? Or disturbingly, what if there were a database of every person considered gay? The years of FBI blacklists, known as Lavender Lists, created against LGBTQ people were still fresh in the community’s mind.
And what if it was more? What if the government was categorizing gay men and queer people to eliminate them? It may seem a far fetched conspiracy theory, yet just a decade before a horrifying experiment conducted by the CDC had been exposed. Between 1932 and 1972 the Center for Disease and Control intentionally provided fake treatment to 600 Black Men in what would become known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. The men were told they were receiving free medical treatment for “bad blood”. In reality, the CDC doctors gave the men placebos and never treated their illness, they never even informed the men of their specific disease. Instead, they simply observed the effects of the disease. While the so-called experiment was supposed to last only 6 months, it ended up lasting 40 years.
By 1947 penicillin was known to treat syphilis, yet the CDC officials never offered the medicine. Moreover, they used the military to prevent the patients from seeking treatment elsewhere as the disease began to kill them. Syphilis is a disease that also lays dormant for many years before slowly destroying the body starting with large rashes and eventually causing brain, heart, and other organ damage. It is a very painful and often terrifying way to die as the individual usually loses their mental capacities towards the end. Despite knowing this, the doctors allowed the men to not only suffer, but also to infect their wives and birth 19 children who carried the disease as well. The experiments were only stopped when the story was leaked to the papers and the patients realized then what was happening to them. With this case very fresh in everyone’s mind, it was completely reasonable to believe the Reagan administration was not only ignoring the crisis but may be responsible for it. The LGBTQ Community wasn’t interested in hearing about testing and control.
In San Francisco, Director of the SF Health Department Merv Silverman held yet another meeting to try and convince the bathhouses to close down. Or at the very least to offer safer forms of sex. Ever since the bathhouse owners had been approached in late 1981 they had put up a harsh resistance. At best, some houses had put up AIDS awareness posters in the back corners of their baths. A few had dedicated one night a week to J-O Nights, where they encouraged men to jack off instead of having sex. But overall, the rate of sex in the baths hadn’t slowed down.
Doctors Don Abram and Paul Volberding of the AIDS Clinic had attended the meeting to show the bathhouse owners the effects of AIDS on individuals. They even created a slide show but decided against it when they realized that just the idea of seeing pictures of people dying of AIDS made the bath owners uncomfortable. After Abram and Volberding gave their lecture the group of men seemed unmoved. Finally, one owner of the largest bathhouse in the area spoke up “We’re both in it for the same thing” he told the doctors, “Money. We make money at one end when they come to the baths. You make money from them on the other end when they come here.”[1-pg422]
As the battle of local politics and medicine raged, a worldwide search for the cause of AIDS had turned into a deadly competition. Researchers in France, prominently Dr. Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute, had previously determined the cause of AIDS and submitted their work to American doctors working on the disease. But the distinguished U.S. physician Bob Gallo was determined to gain credit for the discovery and sabotaged the French studies. This subterfuge would not come to light until early 1984, one year after the cause of the disease had been found by Paris researchers. And even once this was discovered, the bickering and rivalry over who would gain credit continued to slow the progress towards finding treatment for AIDS.
Still, with the medical community in agreement that the cause of AIDS had been found, it was time to go public. Yet even this announcement would be bogged down in politics as U.S. officials were prohibited from making the announcement. The silent President was in his re-election year and suddenly wanted credit for the discovery. His administration instructed the doctors to keep silent until Secretary of Health Margaret Heckler could announce ‘Reagan’s’ success. Even though the information came to light in early February of 84, Heckler strategically waited until it was closer to the middle of the election year to announce the cause of AIDS had been found.
On April 23, 1984, Margaret Heckler approached a podium and announced:
“Today we add another miracle to the long honor roll of American medicine and science.Today’s discovery represents the triumph of science over a dreaded disease. Those who have disparaged this scientific search – those who have said we were not’ doing enough – have not understood how sound, solid, significant medical research proceeds. From the first day that AIDS was identified in 1981, HHS scientists and their medical allies have never stopped searching for the answers to the AIDS mystery. Without a day of procrastination, the resources of the Public Health Service have been effectively mobilized.”[1 – pg450]
It was an outright lie and insulting to those who had been working for so long to find the cause of AIDS. The speech ignored the French completely and towards the end Heckler even added “We hope to have a vaccine ready for testing in about two years. Yet another terrible disease is about to yield to patience, persistence, and outright genius”. The next morning newspapers around the country heralded the news with articles that stated “Researchers could be two years from a cure for ailment”. Of course, it wasn’t all Heckler’s fault. She had been given the false promise from Dr. Gallo who was trying to redeem himself after his blundering with the French. In Shilts’s book, Gallo is seen as..well…Shallow Gallo. He spends a good chunk of the early epidemic searching more for his praise and fame than for a way to help the victims. Gallo’s desire to retain his favorability through false promises would stall the urgency around AIDS funding and research.
Back in San Francisco, the city was finally taking assertive measures to close down the bathhouses. Since the owner refused to comply willingly, city officials backed them into a corner. Either the bathhouses shut their doors temporarily, or the board would put it to a democratic vote. And if the citizens of San Francisco voted to close down the baths then who knew if they would ever re-open. Unable to resist any longer, the bath owners met to discuss the terms of the closure. During their meeting, a young man named Steven Del Re stormed into the room. “You’re doing a dreadful thing!” he shouted. “You will rot in hell, blood will be flowing in the streets! You have all made a serious mistake”. The young man was distraught that his bathhouses were closing. He was quite good looking and very popular. There were even rumors he was sleeping with the famous movie star Rock Hudson. Two years later, sadly, Steven would pass away from AIDS at age 29.
Two days after the Bathhouse meeting, Patient Zero Gaetan Dugas died of AIDS. He never stopped having sex, even after the doctors insisted. He also never really believed he had AIDS. Dugas lived in his own denial and fantasy of invincibility. While he is portrayed as a psychopath who willingly infected other men with the disease, in truth he lived exactly how most other queer people did at the time. Even as more research came to light, people were only beginning to slow down sexual exploits and use safer methods. This isn’t to excuse Dugas for sleeping with people after being told he had a sexually transmitted disease, but rather to shine a light on a common line of thought at the time. Youthful ignorance combined with a lack of knowledge and available resources made for a deadly cocktail. When Evan interviewed gay journalist Brody Levesque (Le-vek) about the AIDS crisis, 40 years later Brody still couldn’t find a good answer for why people didn’t avoid the bathhouses and heed the advice for safer sex. This was just what the queer community knew.
By June of 1984, the death toll had risen beyond 2,000 and was gaining terrifying momentum. The previously confident Secretary of Health Margaret Heckler was now pleading for $55 million more in AIDS funding. A needed but almost ludicrous demand as funding continued to be slashed and denied. Don Francis of the CDC couldn’t even get approval for sanitary door hooks that cost $2.75. By the time the new fiscal year approached the government approved a mere 6% increase for AIDS funding. On June 5th an actor visited his doctor about a spot on his neck. The doctor took a sample and agreed to run some tests but he already knew the results. Now he just had to figure out how to tell Rock Hudson that he had AIDS.
Immediately the actor began seeking treatment. His friend, Steven Del Re, told him about some experimental treatments in France. For several weeks Hudson took the treatments but there wasn’t enough understanding about the virus yet to realize the treatments would need to be taken forever. The actor regained his strength and decided to return to the States for his role in the hit T.V. show Dynasty. Dr Dormant of the Pasteur institute was hesitant to let Hudson go but Rock insisted he was feeling better and able to return to work. Shortly after his arrival back to the U.S. the actor donned his black tux and attended a state diner at the White House. He was, after all, a good friend of Nancy Reagans and a lifelong conservative. Reporters noted that Hudson was looking much thinner than usual and the President’s wife mentioned her friend looked a bit under the weather. Rock assured her, “I caught some bug while I was filming in Israel. I’m feeling fine now”. [1 – pg 476]
In September of 84 scientists had done enough tests to prove that HIV spread through semen and vaginal fluids and it was improbable that it would spread through saliva. This was important on two levels. The first, it proved that heterosexuals were just as likely to receive and transmit the virus. Even though this fact had been known through common and rational sense, it hadn’t yet been ‘proven’. The second point took aim at the harmful stigma of transference through “casual touch” or “household interaction”. Now Director Edward Brandt could assure the public they couldn’t get AIDS from touching a gay person or standing near a “sneezing homosexual”.
As the medicine and science of HIV/AIDS began to take shape, the disease itself took off at breakneck speeds. Dr. Jim Curran projected in late 1984 that there would be 5,000 new cases in the next two years. He missed the mark by 20,000. While the Reagans administration continued to drag its feet on the AIDS crisis and stay relatively silent, Congress was finally doing a small bit of action. The budget they finally approved was a 60% increase over what Reagan’s own administration had requested for AIDS funding [1 – pg 493].
The funding was desperately needed, but so were other matters. For instance, the French drug known as HPA-23 was showing great success among AIDS patients overseas. It was the same drug that had made such a difference in Rock Hudson during the few weeks he was on it. But in America, the extreme testing restrictions slowed down the progress of the release of the drug in the U.S. by years. The only hope for someone fighting the disease was to travel out of the country which meant that most poorer populations had no options for survival. The French thought it especially cruel and Dr. Rozenbaum told a U.S. reporter in frustration, “You Americans let people die without any hope, what do these people have to lose?”
In January of 1985, Don Francis released the CDC’s program titled “Operation AIDS Control”. Francis had been in this fight from the beginning and was exhausted from years of fighting a conservative government that was uninterested in federal health and especially AIDS health. Still, Francis was an idealist working for more education around sex and AIDS as well as testing sites so that people could know their ‘status’. People were still pushing back hard against testing, refusing to be tagged and categorized by the government. Bur Francis was projecting between 20,000 and 50,000 deaths over the next few years. He was one of very few doctors and health officials that truly understood the weight of the epidemic. By the end of January, the caseload had surpassed 8,000, almost double from a number taken just a few months earlier.
In April Francis addressed 2,000 doctors and scientists at the first International Conference on Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. “I’ve seen a lot of viruses in my day,” he told the crowd, “and I’ve come to develop a profound respect for this one. There aren’t many viruses in the history of man that kill one-tenth of the people they infect. We need to think about controlling this one”[1 – pg549]. Francis was right, but all people heard was the word ‘control’. The room erupted in anger and dissent as once again the fear of being re-closeted stifled the community’s rationale. And though he secretly agreed with Francis, Director Jim Curran quickly denounced the doctor telling a reporter “Don Francis does not speak for the CDC, he’s speaking only for himself”.
It’s almost ironic how quickly Curran distanced himself from Francis when the very next day he himself stood at the podium and announced that between 500,000 – 1 million Americans were most likely infected with AIDS. And while there was still a lot to be done in regards to the study of HIV and AIDS, Dr. Paul Volberding made a powerful statement about the other aspect of AIDS. “The quality of AIDS patient treatment in the nation has not kept pace with [the scientific research]”. And it was true. As much as was being done to find a cure or treatment for AIDS, little to nothing was being done to those actually suffering. Almost all hospitals were ill-equipped to handle an AIDS patient and many flat out refused to treat those with AIDS, especially if they were gay.
This point was stressed in Shilts’s book and also pointed out during Evan’s interview with Brody Levesque (Le – vek). It is important to stop here and recognize a group often completely forgotten during the AIDS crisis, which is the Lesbians and Bisexual women of the time period. Gay men and other queer-identifying people were dropping left and right. By 1985 the epidemic was suffocating the community with fear and most people were either sick or terrified of becoming sick. Lesbians and Bisexual women in femme relationships were some of the few exceptions. Which isn’t to say that Lesbians cannot get HIV. In fact, one of the earliest cases recorded was a Lesbian doctor who no doubt came in contact with infected blood. But for the most part, female-identified folks in same-sex relationships were at a low risk of being able to transmit or receive the disease provided they exercise precaution. And so it was the Lesbians and Bisexual women who did a large portion of the home care and on the ground activism for AIDS awareness, fundraising, and policy changes.
Some could even say, lovingly, that the ‘Dykes were the Last Line of Defense’. In addition to the horrible treatment by doctors and hospitals, insurances dropped coverage of those with AIDS or refused to cover their AIDS-related expenses. More and more landlords were denying housing to AIDS patients and the few organizations that were helping those in need were overwhelmed with the demands. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis had reported that the day they established their telephone line the phone never stopped ringing. Though there was a bit of positive awareness beginning to swirl as Larry Kramer’s new play A Normal Heart became a resounding success. The play was a loose autobiography about Kramer and focused on a gay activist who founds an HIV advocacy group. It also takes swipes at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis which had fired Kramer for being too outspoken about AIDS.
As society began to pay more attention to AIDS more people began to get involved with fundraising and community efforts to gain support for AIDS treatment and research. Yet the Reagan administration once again showed its colors. Just one year after Margaret Heckler made her announcement that the cause of AIDS had been found and erroneously projected a cure within 2 years, she returned to the podium once again. This time the administration had cut AIDs funding by 10% despite the rapidly growing number of deaths and reported cases. Heckler’s statement showed their deliberate ignorance around the disease:
“We must conquer AIDS before it affects the heterosexual population and the general population … We have a very strong public interest in stopping AIDS before it spreads outside the risk groups before it becomes an overwhelming problem.”
The statement was made in April of 1985, over 7,000 cases in the U.S. alone would be reported by years end and just under 5,600 would be dead. But it wasn’t considered an ‘overwhelming problem’ yet and the administration still blatantly ignored the thousands of heterosexuals who did have AIDS. Nearly 2,000 heterosexual people were not added to the 7,000 number because they were not gay or Black. 2,000 people had become infected through drug use, blood transfusions, and what was considered heterosexual intercourse. But they weren’t gay and they weren’t Haitian so while many local doctors marked the illnesses as AIDS, the Federal government still refused to acknowledge this was a National pandemic.
‘Urgent. Rock Hudson Fatally Ill. Urgent’
The message flew across the wires as the press was alerted to the movie stars progressing illness. Rumors about Hudson’s illness had surrounded the actor for the last year and on July 23, 1985 – just two days after he collapsed in the lobby of a Paris hotel – an official statement was made by his publicist. “My official statement is that Rock Hudson is in the American Hospital where his doctors have diagnosed that he has cancer of the liver and that it is not operable” spokesman Dale Olson told reporters. The actor was a known alcoholic so it wasn’t far fetched that he would have liver cancer, yet he was also rumored to be gay and many people believe the illness was more than cancer. Later that day as Hudson lay in the hospital bed President Reagan called to tell his friend he was praying for him. It’s too bad he wasn’t moved by the 11,000 other Americans who had now been diagnosed with AIDS.
The doctors of course knew the reality of Hudson’s diagnosis, as did a few of his closest friends, but everyone remained tight-lipped. Still, just the idea that a star like Rock Hudson might die of AIDS suddenly had EVERYONE talking about the disease. News agencies and politicians that had spent half a decade remaining silent about the issue suddenly couldn’t stop talking about the illness. Over the next few days, public figures did all but directly declare that the movie star was gay and dying of AIDS. Reporters hounded the hospital and doctors in Paris demanding more answers. And finally, on July 25, 1985, French publicist Yannou Collart told the world “Mr. Hudson has Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.”
The admittance was a watershed moment in the AIDS crisis. It shattered countless myths and perceptions held around the world. This was no longer a disease of the poor and unwanted, this was a disease killing the man described as “The last of the traditional, squarejawed, romantic leading men”. Rock Hudson was famous and wealthy and he was dying of AIDS. And significantly, he had left his home in the U.S. to seek treatment elsewhere. If this was the country of medical advancement it declared and prided itself in being, then why seek treatment abroad? The scandal of Dr. Gallo’s cover ups and attempts to slow down Paris medicine was brought to light. The apathy and lack of action of the American Government and many large Health Institutions stood in shame. The world was disgusted by the U.S. approach to the AIDS crisis.
Four years before, a handful of men had raised just over $6,000 for AIDS research over the course of a weekend. Within 3 days of the Rock Hudson AIDS announcement, $630,000 was raised in a single afternoon during one AIDS Walkathon in L.A. By the end of that month more than 12,000 people in the U.S. had been diagnosed with AIDS and over 6,000 had died. Doctors projected that 1,000 cases a month would be reported from that month on and they were not wrong. By the end of 1987 50,280 people had been diagnosed with AIDS and 47,993 were dead. Rock Hudson was among them succumbing to the disease on October 2, 1985.
For the rest of the decade awareness around AIDS grew mostly due to the help of celebrities who stepped in to raise money for the cause. Joan Rivers was among the first stars to show open support. And later, notably, Elizabeth Taylor and Elton John formed charities to fund research and treatment. In 1987 Shilts book showed a light on the deception and politics that had hindered a proper response to the crisis. And throughout it all, the Presidential administrations of Reagan and George H. W. Bush remained largely silent. Reagan addressed the disease once in 1985 and did so only to express sympathy for parents who did want to send their children to school with a child with AIDS. It wasn’t until 1987 that he began to openly speak about AIDS.
In 1990 the Ryan White CARE Act was passed by Congress. The act was named after a young boy from Indiana who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. After years of wrangling with blood banks to test their blood they finally began to relent in 1985. But it wasn’t until 1987 that measures were widely passed and during those seven years, countless people had become infected due to routine blood transfusions. The Ryan White CARE Act provided funding for care for people living with HIV/AIDS. While the ACT expired in 2013, the funding still remains in place for victims.
Today we face the continued battle of erasing the ‘gay stigma’ around HIV/AIDS, as well as addressing the problem of HIV/AIDS in Black and Brown communities. While great advancements have been made in the treatment of white queer people, we still see that Black and Brown queer people and trans people of all colors struggle to access affordable tests, treatments, and home care. The Black AIDS Institute offers a lot of resources about Black AIDS issues and the Latino Commission on AIDS offers resources for Latino AIDS issues. In our community we can actively work to provide free HIV testing and needle exchanges as well as making our sex education more inclusive and expansive.
Your recommended resources for this episode are The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS in Black America by Jacob Levenson and the play Angels in America which is available for free on YouTube or Life Support available to rent on YouTube which is about a black woman living with HIV and stars Queen Latifah.
- And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts, copyright 1987 Penguin Books
- Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic by Richard A. McKay, copyright 2017 The University of Chicago Press
- History – https://www.history.com/topics/1980s/history-of-aids
- HIV/AIDS Crisis (Wiki)- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HIV/AIDS_in_the_United_States
- Rock Hudson (Wiki) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_Hudson
- Left Behind – Black America: A Neglected Priority in the Global AIDS Epidemic published by Black AIDS Institute 2008
- Newsweek – https://images.app.goo.gl/yhDW6bPP3XA2WZZP8
- CDC AIDS Deaths – https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5021a2.htm
- History – https://www.history.com/topics/1980s/history-of-aids
- AIDS Institute – https://www.theaidsinstitute.org/education/aids-101/where-did-hiv-come-0#:~:text=The%20earliest%20known%20case%20of,Democratic%20Republic%20of%20the%20Congo.
- AIDS Cause – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/24/probable-cause-of-aidsfound-archive-1984
- 1,112 And Counting – https://www.losangelesblade.com/2020/05/27/march-27-1983-1112-and-counting/
- Heckler (2) – http://www.nbcnews.com/id/21889662/ns/health-second_opinion/t/finding-way-again-after-failed-aids-vaccine/#.Xuy9G5pKipo
- Montagnier – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luc_Montagnier
- Tuskegee – https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm