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AIDS: An American Tragedy

This year, the trauma touched everyone

AIDS patient

A patient with AIDS, at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, 1985.

Michael Ward/Getty

I‘d expected the middle-of-the-night phone calls, the hissed obscenities and hysterical attacks. I wrote “The Plague Years” (RS 444 and 446) knowing that a piece about such a disturbing subject was bound to scare up its share of crazies: the three a.m. radio-talk-show callers who can segue from any topic — whether it’s the crisis in the Middle East or a recipe for tofu — to UFOs, reincarnation and the rats in the walls.

There were the usual calls from the far right, attacking me for being progay. And a surprising number of callers accused the article of being antigay, which, although I disagree, I can understand. I believe virtually any American male, especially one who came of age before the late Sixties, must be homophobic — even gay males of that generation are to one degree or another homophobic — in the same way that most American whites are racist. That doesn’t mean we can’t struggle against our prejudices, even transcend them; it does mean we must face them.

What I hadn’t expected was how widespread the hysterical reaction to the article would be and how deeply it would upset ordinary readers, both gay and straight. Too many people who picked up the piece had friends and relatives who were dying. Many were simply terrified and confused.

Two days after the first part of the article was published, I was walking down the street when a man I’d interviewed for the article stopped me to tell me that he liked the piece. His friend turned to me and said, “You’re the son of a bitch that wrote it!” and slugged me, chipping a tooth, splitting open my lip and cheek and giving me a black eye.

When I first started researching AIDs two and a half years ago, the number of cases was doubling every six months. But it now takes a year for the number of cases to double. According to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in Atlanta, Georgia, by October 27th, 1984, there had been a total of 3410 cases for the year. By the same time this year, October 26th, there had been a total of 6568 cases.

According to figures from the CDC published in The Wall Street Journal, the rate of increase has dropped from 449 percent between 1980 and 1981, to 283 percent between 1981 and 1982, to 174 percent between 1982 and 1983, to 94 percent between 1983 and 1984. From the first half of 1984 to the first half of 1985, the rate of increase dropped to 50 percent.

The statistics may lie: the rate of increase may be slowing because fewer people are reporting the disease. People with AIDs might not want the disease reported for fear of losing their insurance, their jobs, their friends. Closet gays might not want the disease reported because they don’t want their hidden life betrayed. Doctors might not report the disease because they sympathize with the fears of closet-gay patients or because they simply don’t have the time to do all the paperwork.

But perhaps the statistics are not lying. What if host factors — i.e., how resistant or vulnerable individuals are to infections — are as important as exposure to the virus in whether or not someone gets AIDS? What if the disease is exhausting those who are especially susceptible? Susceptibility may have as much to do with drug use as with sexual practice. Seventy-nine percent of all AIDS cases seem to be related to drug abuse — not just sharing needles but using any substance that might suppress the immune system.

If this is true, closing bathhouses and peep shows may have a negligible effect on stopping the spread of the disease. (In fact, some gays feel that such closures in New York have as much to do with real-estate concerns as with policing morality. “They’ve been trying to close the peeps for years … so they can gentrify Times Square,” one man told me.)

AIDS has not begun spreading through sexual transmission among the heterosexual population at a faster rate than in the past — such cases still add up to only one percent of the total number — and it also seems to be slowing slightly among gays.

These are facts that few in the media or the scientific community have publicized — possibly because it seems in almost everyone’s interests to feed fear.

The media can capitalize on fear to get people to buy more newspapers and tune in to more news shows. Scientists can profit from fear because it puts pressure on the government to award larger research grants. The government can use fear as an excuse to increase social control; politicians can take advantage of fear to get headlines and votes. Gays can exploit fear to force the straight community to concern itself with a disease that otherwise might be dismissed — in fact, for a while, had been dismissed — as a gay problem. Conservatives can use fear to whip up homophobia, and liberals can use the conservatives’ overreaction to expose what a threat conservatives are to minorities.

Fear has fed homophobia and promoted legislation, even violence, against gays. It’s created pressure to quarantine those who are sick or who are in risk groups and has blown out of proportion such issues as where to house the sick and whether or not children with AIDS should be allowed to attend public schools.

I’m not suggesting that we should not address serious questions — like what to do with children who have AIDS or how to react to AIDS carriers who insist on being sexually active and secretive about their condition. I’m suggesting that these questions cannot be rationally addressed in a climate of irrational fear. Irrationality leads only to more irrationality.

In a hospital near Holyoke, Massachusetts, a desperate AIDS patient stripped off his hospital gown and tried to commit suicide by leaping from his window. He didn’t know his room was over an annex of the hospital that jutted out only one story below; he dropped a dozen feet and landed, unhurt, on the roof of the annex, next to a coronary ward, and heart patients who happened to be glancing out the window were confronted with a naked man pounding on the pane.

By midsummer — when rumors spread that Rock Hudson had AIDS — the general public was like those coronary patients confronted with a naked man pounding on their window: the sight was as intriguing as it was upsetting. The media had discovered a new subject: Celebrity AIDS.

The obsession with whether or not Hudson had given AIDS to his television costar in a televised kiss melted the barrier between soap opera and life. Reality began to seem like merely one more episode of Dynasty, an episode that involved hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people — like the 12,000 pupils in Queens, New York, whose parents kept them home from school because the school board was allowing a seven-year-old child with AIDS to attend second grade; the Mount Vernon, New York, Board of Education, which voted to bar teachers and students with AIDS; the Kokomo, Indiana, boy with AIDS who was participating with his seventh-grade class through a telephone-computer hookup; the parishioners who objected to the Roman Catholic archdiocese’s plan to shelter people with AIDS in a former convent on New York City’s Upper West Side; the 1500 Catholics who attended a forty-hour devotion, a vigil first used in 1537 in response to the bubonic plague; the churchgoers who are afraid they can contract AIDS by drinking from the communion cup; the insurance companies that want to exclude AIDS coverage from policies; and the men and women in the United States armed forces who will be tested for the disease.

Pumped up by the media, the public has been luxuriating in an orgy of necrophilia that has little to do with AIDS. In my files for the past nine months, I have a fat folder with over a hundred articles on Hudson, Hollywood and AIDS, and a thin folder — fewer than a dozen articles — on significant advances in our understanding of the disease.

A poll conducted in September by the New York Daily News indicated that forty-two percent of those responding wanted people with AIDS to be quarantined. The Colorado Board of Health decided recently to demand a report of the name, age, sex and address of anyone who has been exposed to AIDS. Newark, New Jersey, and Dade County, Florida, are both considering laws requiring some sort of certification that food handlers are AIDS free. The Republican candidate for mayor of New York this fall said that under her administration the list of those who would need an AIDS-free guarantee would also include all doctors, nurses, teachers and prostitutes. The U.S. Navy refused one man treatment or an honorable discharge unless he named the people with whom he’d had sex. West Germany has considered compulsory AIDS tests for people in risk groups and criminal sanctions against people with AIDS who have sex. England has passed laws that would allow the government to quarantine people with AIDS and prevent relatives from claiming the bodies of family members. There is talk about restricting international travel of anyone not certifiably AIDS free.

All of these laws, proposed and passed, and schemes for isolating people with AIDS may be only marginally useful in fighting the disease. Since the virus seems to be transmitted only through intimate contact, people suffering from AIDS almost certainly present no threat to anyone through casual contact like handling food or teaching. If useful at all, quarantining people with the disease protects them from getting illnesses that healthy people can easily shake off. If kids with AIDS should be kept out of classrooms, it’s to keep them from dying from any of the childhood illnesses that sweep through schools. Since AIDS was first reported in 1981, there have been only 204 cases among schoolchildren; their healthy classmates are more likely to get hurt in a bus accident coming home than they are to get AIDS. Even prostitutes are more at risk than their customers; there still has not been one fully documented case of a man getting AIDS from a woman. Draconian laws to control the spread of AIDS violate basic civil rights and may be more dangerous to the community than the disease itself.

At the birthday party of a friend’s five-year-old, I talked to a doctor who has treated many people with AIDS.

“Our generation had the best of it,” he said. “Even if for only a short time. Drugs to cure syphilis and gonorrhea. The pill — before we discovered the pill could be fatal. We could run amok with sex, plunge into it, explore it as if we were on some safe safari in a wildlife sanctuary. Get the thrill of seeing the prowling beasts, but without the threat.”

He gestured toward the boys and girls in the backyard, who were doing the five-year-old equivalent of flirting.

“What we’ve seen of AIDS is just the beginning,” he said. “What do you think sex is going to be like for them when they grow up? God help them.”

In This Article: AIDS, Coverwall

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