AIDS: Rage & Reality – Why Silence is Deadly Gene Antonio

Kate Fillon’s column in the Globe and Mail for May 13, 1993 carried an account of Fashion Cares, the annual gala to raise money for the AIDS Committee of Toronto. She described two young men, so emaciated that every bone in their rib cages was visible, shambling around a stage “holding hands in a blank-gazed caricature of limp-wristed homosexuality,” while the crowd went wild: “Cheers, popping flashbulbs, applause, much oohing and ahhing.” Incredible as it may seem, these two sufferers from AIDS were being treated as unsung heroes.

Gene Antonio’s book, AIDS: Rage and Reality, provides a strong reaction against such sentimentality. It quotes Dr. Philip Levitan, President of the New York Society of Surgeons, as saying in 1988, “The entire AIDS problem has been politicized and we feel at this point it needs to be medicalized.” It also quotes Larry Kramer, founder of the protest group ACT-UP which tried to desecrate St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, as raging at society’s neglect:

“We have been lined up in front of a firing squad and it is called AIDS. We must riot. The new phase is terrorism…I don’t know whether it means burning buildings, or killing people or setting fire to yourselves…

A tremendous wrong is being done to us, and it makes me furious. I think when I’m ready to go, I will take somebody with me.”

What is the tremendous wrong? He himself is responsible for his own condition; his own actions caused it. He does not accept blame, and he does not want his lifestyle interfered with: AIDS, in fact, has become a politically protected disease. IN a foreword, Dr. Joseph Feldschuh calls attention to the great strides made in the 20th century to control contagious diseases; yet in this one disease, the most significant threat to the human race in the modern era, the basic principle of protecting the well-being of society has been subverted. The overwhelming emphasis on the civil rights aspect, on protecting the privacy of those with HIV, has stymied efforts at disease control.

Twenty times as much money is spent on AIDS research as on breast cancer, yet the homosexuals continue to demand more and more. Many experts consider that a vaccine or a cure will be impossible to find, because the virus becomes entrenched within the genetic material of the infected cells and vital organs: there is no way of killing the virus without destroying the cells it infects. In fact HIV uses cells which normally protect the body in order to spread the disease.

This is analogous, Antonio writes, to a country using its defensive system to bomb its own population. All the grief and rage and demands for greater efforts to find a remedy for this dread disease have collided head on with the brick wall of unyielding biological reality.

Antonio dwells on the fearsome consequences of AIDS, especially the brain deterioration it produces. He maintains that the disease can be passed on through normal sexual relations, through cuts, through saliva, and in many other ways.

Furthermore, its sufferers usually get TB as well, and they are at least partially responsible for a new epidemic of this disease, which can be spread through coughing: we are undergoing a kind of airborne terrorism. He estimates that there will be 110 million people with AIDS in the world by the year 2000. And sex education courses, in which teachers and public health nurses clamour for a contraceptive deluge because, “Fornicating is just a normal part of growing up,” will do little to inhibit its spread.

This book is useful, informative, and infuriating. It’s pages shout at us; Antonio has an irritating habit of disfiguring his text with black letters in large type and of capitalizing important parts of quotations where no capitals appear in the originals. He backs up his statements with references; in fact the footnotes take up forty-four pages of small type. But on a subject where new information is emerging daily, one reference, perhaps from a newspaper article, is not enough to back up a controversial claim.

For example, on p. 234 we read, “HIV Breaking Out Among Teenagers: Health Officials Paralyzed.” The basis for this surprising statement is a report in the Milwaukee Journal about findings at one clinic in that city; it is doubtful that there is an epidemic of HIV among teenagers elsewhere (certainly not in Canada) and that health officials are in a state of paralysis.

Against similar statements about the prevalence of AIDS in Britain must be set such evidence as that in one of England’s largest cities, Manchester, 57 people were employed full-time in July 1992 on AIDS prevention, education, and counseling—but there were only 18 patients. “Some health authorities have found it hard to convince people of the importance of AIDS counseling and education,” observed the London Sunday Times, “when only a tiny minority are contracting the disease.”

In brief, Antonio provides a good deal of useful information, together with a prudent warning against the terrorism of Kramer and the like, but his book must be used with caution. I hope that the next one he writes avoids the over-emphasis so characteristic of this one.