October 2, 1985, is a memorable date. It changed history because it gave a face to AIDS. Up to that time Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome was featureless. For most people, it was the illness of gay men. Men who lived elsewhere.
Some doctors called AIDS “gay cancer” because of the presence of Kaposi’s sarcoma in many of the men who’d died from it.
The lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma.
But those men didn’t live in our town, our state. They lived in San Francisco. There were a lot of them there for sure. They lived anywhere but here.
By October 2, 1985, newspapers and magazines had been carrying articles about the disease for several years. For some readers, AIDS was a disease of those disreputable and unredeemable men called “gays” or “queers” or “homos” or “homosexuals.”
It was the curse a just God had called down on them for their actions in bathhouses and dilapidated rooming houses.
These AIDS carriers were better off dead.
The sooner the better.
Let’s rid the world of them and their repellent disease.
Those were the thoughts countless people in the United States had before October 2, 1985. They knew about gay men and lesbian women, but they didn’t know anyone who was actually “queer.” None of their friends had turned away from heterosexuality and chosen to be gay.
For that was the thought then. One “chose” to be homosexual. One turned his or her back on heterosexuality and decided, because of contrariness, to be different. Immoral. Sleazy. Unsavory. Disgusting. One wanted to be "a homo." To be gay.
Okay. Let them choose, but let them know that they will never be welcomed in the heterosexual society that runs this world.
And what happened to disturb those thoughts back on October 2, 1985?
Rock Hudson—the tall, dark, and handsome movie star—died.
Rock Hudson in the movie Giant.
Exposés followed: He was gay. He’d always been gay. Some of the most renowned movie stars—Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Saint James, and Carol Burnett among them—had known and kept the horrible secret.
He was an active gay man and he died of AIDS.
The news blared forth in every household in the United States where someone was reading the newspaper or watching the evening news on television or listening to the radio: Rock Hudson has died from an AIDS-related illness at age fifty-nine.
This celebrity-conscious society in which we live collectively gasped. No longer was AIDS faceless. It now bore the face of Rock Hudson who had been called “The Star of the Year” and “Favorite Leading Man.” From 1957 to 1964, he’d been named one of the “Top 10 Stars of the Year” eight times.
Everyone remembered him as tall—six feet five—with dark hair, incisive eyes, and a sculptured face. Now photographs in newspapers and magazines revealed him as gaunt. Frail.
And so AIDS came out of the closet. For years, governments throughout the world had largely ignored what many had called a “pandemic.” The twentieth century had already faced one pandemic. Between the years 1918 and 1920, the Spanish influenza had swept through our world leaving dead more than 50,000,000 people. Some historians in fact estimated that number to be 130,000,000.
In the mid-eighties, many doctors and scientists in Europe and the United States predicted that AIDS could do the same.
By late 1985, more than 12,000 people had died in the United States alone. So here, the word most often used was epidemic. We had an epidemic on our hands and gay men were spreading it.
Homophobes insisted that this was only gay men killing gay men. Go ahead, let them. Let them kill off one another.
But wait a minute. What about Ryan White of Kokomo, Indiana? He wasn’t gay and yet he was HIV-infected. How’d that happen?
Ryan White at thirteen.
The national headline about the thirteen-year-old boy with hemophilia had captured the nation’s attention ten months before—in December 1984. A public school in his hometown had expelled him because parents feared he’d infect their children. He already had the virus that would lead to death from AIDS. Parents reasoned that he would pass the infection on to their children by drinking from the same fountain or paper cup.
In those early years of the eighties, the word AIDS and HIV-positive became commonplace. Misinformation was also common. People believed they could be infected through kissing or by simply touching a person who was already infected. Ryan White’s case made many wonder about the reliability of blood transfusions. So, were gay men and the blood they donated now killing children? Was anyone safe?
Fear stalked the land.
It was in that atmosphere that the book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts, a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle, was published in 1987.
The Washington Post hailed it as “a monumental history.”
The San Francisco Sentinel called it “fascinating, frightening, and essential reading.”
The New York Times proclaimed that it was “a heroic work of journalism.”
In spring of 1988, I sat on the screened-in porch of my 1870 lumberjack home in Stillwater, Minnesota, and read that book. I entered a world unlike any I’d ever known and it prepared me for the article I read later that summer in Time magazine. That article, and its use of one word, catapulted me into volunteering to work with young men who were HIV-positive or had full-blown AIDS.
More about that on Saturday.
All photographs from Wikipedia.