Monday, April 06, 2015

A book to make you scream in frustration and disbelief

I've just finished reading And The Band Played On, Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by journalist Randy Shilts.

Randy Shilts was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle through the 70s and 80s and, as such, was in the eye of the storm. His account is very researched and detailed, focusing on key protagonists in the discovery of and fight against AIDS, starting from one of the earliest cases (a female Danish doctor who had worked in country hospitals in Zaire in the the 70s) up to the revelation to the public that Rock Hudson, one of Hollywood's biggest male stars of his era, was dying of AIDS, in 1985.

It is a gripping story, and sadly, a real-life one.

Reading the movements of Patient Zero (an Air Canada stewart who was at the centre of a cluster of victims in San Francisco, LA, NY and other cities), you can't help but gasp at the guy's refusal to believe his diagnosis and change his lifestyle.

Reading about the first clues that something was going wrong - eg a sudden, mysterious number of cases of a rare Pneumonia in LA, orders of a hard-to-source medicine coming more and more regularly to the government scientist dispensing it etc - your heart sinks.

Reading the gay press's character assassinations of any health officials who dared tell gay people to have fewer partners/use condoms/not go to bathhouses, you just shake your head in disbelief. But then Shilts reminds you of the recent Harvey Milk murder and other discrimination, and so shows you that the community's fears of quarantine and the like came from somewhere. Of course, the gay community came out of it stronger - Shilts also makes the point that, through the organising of phone lines, clinics, fundraisers, grief counselling etc, this is when it actually became a true community.

Reading about another Reagan administration refusal for more funds for AIDS research, or of the American science papers refusing to publish the Pasteur Institute news that they had found the virus that caused AIDS, you just want to scream, just like the young political aides and the researchers who kept waiting for more money and results. (Reagan didn't mention AIDS in a speech until 1986!)

Reading that the media hardly covered the issue, or questioned what the politicians said about it, you wonder what the fuck they were doing and realise how discrimination and prejudice made the "gay disease" something that was deemed not newsworthy.

Reading that the blood banks dont want to test their blood supplies, you just sigh heavily, knowing what will come next.

No one comes out of his account in a good light. The best summary is this paragraph, from the chapter 'Lights & Tunnels':

Later, everybody agreed the baths should have been closed sooner; they agreed health education should have been more direct and more timely. And everybody also agreed blood banks should have tested blood sooner, and that scientists should have laid aside their petty intrigues. Everybody subsequently agreed that the news media should have offered better coverage of the epidemic much earlier, and that the federal government should have done much, much more. By the time everyone agreed to all this, however, it was too late. Instead, people died. Tens of thousands of them.

This book however is full of heroes. People who raised the alarm, fought against the tide of denial and disapproval, and who we owe so much to. Gay or straight, they are our saints. One of them is Larry Kramer, co-founder of New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis: his play about the onset of AIDS, The Normal Heart, was written in 1985 and turned into an HBO film in 2014 - I need to watch it asap.

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