Politics, people & the AIDS epidemic

This blockbuster of a book tells how, figuratively speaking, the band played on while the AIDS crisis got worse and worse. Lengthy and detailed though it is, it sustains the reader’s interest through its narrative method. It is divided into short segments, which switch rapidly from one scene to another- San Francisco, New York, the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, dramatis personae. They bring in a large cast of dramatis personae. The stories of these people are not fiction, the author insists; for purposes of narrative flow, he reconstructs scenes and conversations, but he bases his book on ten years’ experience as a reporter in San Francisco, hundreds of interviews, and extensive consultation of government documents.

The tale is one of “denial and delay, sophistry and self interest.” It contains many heroes, especially some dedicated retro virologists and epidemiologists, and some prominent homosexuals who try to maximize the effects of the disease (and are often labeled homophobes and fascists for their efforts). There are many villains – Washington bureaucrats, who argue that throwing away money at AIDS will not stop it; bathhouse operators, who want their rights – and their profits; blood bank operators, similarly motivated, who keep denying that AIDS can be transmitted through transfusions even when a hundred Americans have died because of contaminated blood; and many of the homosexuals themselves, refusing to admit that they are spreading a horrible disease.

11,000 Americans

The Statistics, which Shilts intersperses throughout his work, chart and inexorable progress. In the week of August 13, 1982, the number of cases in the U.S. passed 500. By October of the next year, Bill Kraus was the 728th person to be diagnosed in San Francisco alone. In June 1985, the American tally was over 11,000 of whom 5,441 had died. Three quotations dramatize the spread and impact of the disease: “Listening to this frightening tale of this new virus, Cleve Jones thought about gay sexual mores – hell, his own sexual exploits. His face turned white. “We’re all dead,’ he said.” (January 1982)

“Bill Darrow established sexual links between 40 patients in 10 cities. At the center of the cluster was Patient Zero. His role truly was remarkable. At least 40 of the first gay men with AIDS either had sex with Patient Zero or had sex with someone who did.” (April 1982)

“Don Francis knew enough to draw some depressing conclusions. Gay men were going to die by the tens of thousands. Hemophiliacs faced decimation. Intravenous drug users would be wiped out in astounding numbers.

Equatorial Africa faced death on the scale of the Holocaust.” 1984)

Patient Zero, sad to say, was a Canadian – Gaetan Dugas, and airline steward from Montreal. Even when he had AIDS for months, he kept going to bathhouses. He was a legend in San Francisco – the formerly handsome man, now was purple spots on his skin, who had sex with other men and then calmly told them that he had gay cancer. Even when Dr. Selma Dritz of the San Francisco Health Department told him he had to stop, he reacted by angrily saying that it was none of her business – and went on spreading the disease. When he was finally forced out of San Francisco, he transferred his activities to Vancouver.

Horror and pathos

The book describes a succession of deaths, which are full of horror and pathos, especially when false hopes arise and inevitably disappear.  One of the most dramatic moments occurs when Dr. Dale Lawrence of the Centers for Disease Control has a statistician plot the incubation curve and finds the mean for AIDS is not two years, as had been thought, but 5.5. If the disease sleeps for so long, he realizes, this means that thousands and thousands of people have it and do not know it. Another high point occurs when U.S. Secretary of Health Margaret Heckler tells a press conference, “Today we add another miracle to the long honor roll of American medicine and science.” But this occasion is full of irony, for she is claiming that American researcher Dr. Robert Gallo has isolated the virus which causes the disease, when scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris have discovered it some months before.

As one would expect, there are many stories of compassion and its lack. On the one hand there are those who say, “It’s only a gay disease. They’ll all be dead soon- and good riddance to them.” One the other hand, there are examples of extraordinary charitable behavior, as when a woman in a white linen gown moves among young men in a Washington hospital and asks them about their illness: “Mother Teresa, came to visit the AIDS patients directly from the White House, where President Regan, who had yet to acknowledge the disease, had awarded her the Medal of Freedom.”

Shilts shows how exaggerated were the fears that AIDS could spread through casual contact that it would move like wildfire through the heterosexual population in North American. His is a very good book with some disturbing things in it – aside from the disgusting practices it describes and the number of tragic deaths. Its main action is set between two Gay Freedom Day Parades in San Francisco, one in 1980 and one in 1985. The first, in the time Before, celebrates the glory days for homosexuals. The second, in the time After, after “the years of denial and anger, the bargaining and incapacitating sadness,” is hardly less a celebration: “Hopefully, Americans could learn from the gay community’s mistakes and not waste valuable time floundering in denial: perhaps Americans could learn from the gay community’s new strengths, as well.”

In an Epilogue, Shilts enters the mind of Cleve Jones as he leads a crowd of angry homosexuals towards the White House, chanting, “History will recall, Reagan did the least of all”; “The numbers of AIDS cases measured the shame of the nation, he believed. The United States, the one nation with the knowledge, the resources, and the institutions to respond to the epidemic, had failed, and it had failed because of ignorance and fear, prejudice and rejection. The story of the AIDS epidemic was that simple, Cleve felt: it was a story of bigotry and what it could do to a nation.”

The story was not that simple at all; it is never easy to hate the sin and still love the sinner, and Americans could hardly be blamed for thinking that the homosexuals had brought the plague upon themselves. Excellent as this book is, in the long run it defends and even recommends an unnatural vice – sodomy.