June 10, 2020
Happy Pride! Today’s book rec is one should go on your TBR list rather than something you should pick up if you’ve got it sitting around because reading it during a pandemic is a MISTAKE, take it from me: And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts. This is a chronicle of the first years of the AIDS epidemic, back to the first instances of it found in European researchers studying in Africa, through the quietness of its incubation period in the next four years, up to its exponential growth in the years 1981–1985, where it appeared most virulently in the gay populations of NYC, San Francisco, and LA. It also showed up in Haitians (who’d been working in Africa and expatriating back home), hemophiliacs (thanks to blood banks), and habitual intravenous drug users. Doctors who saw gay patients frequently were confused about why their patients were suddenly showing up with a rare skin cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, and quickly took biopsies and conducted tests to figure out what was causing their T-cells to deplete and their immune systems to fail. They tried contact tracing early too, and saw that their gay patients were men who had a high rate of sexual partners and frequently went to gay bathhouses, a place where gay men could celebrate their sexuality without shame in the wake of the sexual revolution, where anonymous, unprotected sex was the main attraction. Unfortunately, getting funding for this research was an arduous, nearly impossible task, especially because it was the Reagan administration and budget cutting everywhere was its number one priority (and BOY did that make me mad. Reagan was a bad president and I will not hear any arguments otherwise, sorry Dad). No one in the CDC or FDA thought it would be a big thing — they actually at first thought it might be transmitted to the gay community through poppers (innocuous party drugs) rather than through sexual contact. A few activists, some of them mentored by Harvey Milk, saw what was happening early on, and they tried to raise awareness and funds to care for their friends who were now facing such a scary diagnosis, and they were called sexual fascists for suggesting things like “have fewer sexual partners” and “use a condom, please.” The bathhouse owners were extremely reluctant to shut down business, even though they knew that other STIs were frequently spread at their establishments (and this pissed me off A LOT, just so you know). Blood banks refused to start screening donors or test for increased hepatitis antibodies that might indicate immune problems, and that pissed me off a lot too. Larry Kramer, who recently passed away, was the most vocal gadfly in NYC, whose public health boards did absolutely nothing at all to help AIDS patients, not even open up a dedicated hospital ward where the disease could be easily studied (San Francisco activists had to establish their own ward for this). He started a collective to address the issue in the gay community, and was so obnoxious about it they kicked him out, so he decided to write The Normal Heart to really bring attention to the issue. It worked.
The book also tells about how the scientists tried to figure out what the virus was (or if it even was a virus), and how they bickered and argued the whole time (it was the French at the Pasteur Institute who finally isolated the virus, btw), and that was frustrating to read about too. Provide funding for research! Especially for public health! The press reaction ALSO pissed me off, since they didn’t report on it at all when the virus was only known as the gay cancer, and only started to care when it affected people receiving blood transfusions or the babies of heterosexual drug users. Some doctors (DOCTORS!) in the Reagan administration actually considered the virus a judgment from God, killing off the sinful homosexuals. (If you believe in the Rapture and are trying to hasten it along, you’re not allowed to be a public servant, sorry, those are the rules now.) Finally, finally, finally, once the disease has infected and killed thousands and thousands of people, public health officials start to take it seriously, six years after doctors started noticing something was up. Far too late.
All in all, it’s a stressful read. It’s hard to escape the parallels to COVID-19, even though AIDS targeted a very specific population and spread rapidly because of activities that were fraught with emotional baggage that things like “coughing” and “breathing” that spread covid were not. The mainstream press didn’t want to report on the epidemic because they didn’t want to get into particulars of how it spread — anal sex and anal fisting in particular made them very uncomfortable. Men didn’t want to give up the bathhouses or multiple partners because they finally had the freedom to indulge in their sexuality however they chose, without shame. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that since the victims were overwhelmingly gay men, no one who had the authority and money to find out what was spreading the disease and how to treat it just didn’t care enough to devote the time and resources to doing it. They just didn’t care if the gay men died out. That’s not the case with covid. Covid spread through administrative incompetence as well (and the responses from the city governments in San Francisco and NYC to the later epidemic are almost exactly how they were to the first one, interestingly enough), but the moral component (imposed from the outside, of course) was missing, and that’s the biggest difference.
It’s a stressful read, but the information is vital. You need to know about the most traumatic event in the gay community, and you need to know about how to protect the public health (and that includes through research, press, protest, direct action, community outreach and volunteering, and voting in people who aren’t going to defund public health). Just read it when there’s not a global pandemic happening, OK?