A Word No One Wanted To Speak

According to Randy Shilts in And The Band Played On, the last time anyone in the gay community could remember everyone they knew being healthy was during the summer of 1976. The bicentennial of the United States was a time of celebration, exploration, and a Presidential election. The political atmosphere of the late 70s, and the results of the 1976 Presidential election, created what would become the politics of AIDS.

Between 1976 and 1980, an unknown, and unnamed, epidemic slowly started invading the United States. The first “official” case of  AIDS in the United States was in 1980. AIDS would become, in the ensuing years, known as the “epidemic no one officially died from.” By September 1985, the first time the word ‘AIDS’ was used by then-President Ronald Reagan, the AIDS epidemic had become the most deadly epidemic in modern history. So then, the question is, how did a virus manage to become so strong, so widespread, and so deadly in an age where science advanced daily, and man had walked on the moon? The answer: politics.

The political background of the the United States before the first confirmed AIDS death in April 1980 is important. Jimmy Carter’s election as President in 1976, was a direct result of the disaster that was the Nixon administration. When Nixon resigned, in disgrace, in August 1974, Nixon’s vice-president Gerald Ford was sworn in. Ford had 2 years to overcome the legacy left to him by Nixon: 1)tainted by association; 2)He was never elected VP, nor President (a first for America…the VP elected with Nixon in 1972, Spiro Agnew, resigned in October 1973 because of alleged tax evasion, to which he pled no contest); 3)the worst economy since the Great Depression 4) the fall of South Vietnam to the North, ending America’s involvement in Vietnam (which, the withdrawal of troops was welcome…the result of losing Vietnam was something entirely different) and 5)the full and unconditional pardoning of Nixon, which was controversial at best and political suicide at worst. In reality, the Ford presidency was relatively stable both domestically and in terms of foreign policy. Unfortunately, there were too many deal breakers for him to overcome. Ford barely won the Republican presidential nominee (which was unheard of, a party nominee to the incumbent president is considered a sure thing), and the general election pitted him against former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter.

The 1976 Presidential election was brutal. Carter campaigned as a Beltway outsider (meaning he wasn’t a politician from the rank and file of those used to Washington…not a Congressman, Senator or Lobbyist), and a reformer. He also ran on a principle of decreased interventionism, which was a welcome relief to some after Vietnam. When the fall campaign began Carter held a 33-point lead over Ford. That lead quickly slimmed. During the campaign, comments made by Carter on various subjects reduced his support by women and evangelical Christians (although Carter, a baptist, was very vocal about his religious beliefs), and Ford’s accusations that Carter was unprepared to be a national leader, coupled with Carter’s own vague stances on several issues and Ford’s campaign blunders (including his statement during a debate that there was no soviet domination of Eastern Europe…which showed a severe lack of ability to read an atlas) resulted in an Election day that was too close to call. The uncertainty of the outcome lasted until 0330, when NBC announced that Carter had the requisite 240 electoral votes and declared him the winner. As it turned out, winning the election was the easiest part of Carter’s presidency.

Carter’s presidency was plagued by catastrophe. On his first day in office, he signed an executive order declaring amnesty for all Vietnam draft evaders. He increased social reforms, and signed both bills and executive orders related to energy independence and environmental concerns. These very liberal policy initiatives, and a stagnate economy, would come back to haunt Carter in the 1980 Presidential election, as would his foreign policy stances. Carter cut the US defence budget by $6billion, removed nuclear weapons from South Korea, and declared that he’d remove all troops from South Korea (a decision publicly criticised by then-chief of staff of US troops in Korea, Major General John Singlaub…Carter relieved him of duty). The biggest foreign policy disaster for Carter was Iran. In 1979, Carter’s penultimate year in office, the Iranian revolution resulted in the capture of fifty-two Americans by Iranian students. That, coupled with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, along with the disasters which befell Carter during the previous 3 years, resulted in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

The 1980 Presidential election marked a decided turn in American politics. With the election of Reagan, by a landslide (489 electoral votes to 49…44 states carried, 50.8% of the popular vote), the “conservative revolution” had hit America, due in large part to the Christian right. AIDS entered the American political scene at the same time that conservatism made a strong comeback, riding the coattails of the Christian right.

The thing about the start of the AIDS epidemic in America is that no one believed it. The initial outbreak of AIDS didn’t hit the mainstream consciousness until 1985, five years after the first confirmed death. The problem wasn’t lack of information, the problem was lack of political caring.

On 24 April 1980, Ken Horne, a resident of San Francisco, died of an unknown virus. His death, which was attributed to Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS), was reported to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC was baffled… although KS wasn’t unheard of, it was unheard of in a young, white, male… KS was, before 1980, a type of skin cancer seen mostly in elderly Italian and Jewish men. The CDC dismissed it as a one-off,  they didn’t have the funding to pursue something so innocuous. Little did the CDC realise that 24 April 1980 marked the beginning of a bureaucratic, political, scientific nightmare. On 23 December, Rick Wellikoff, of Brooklyn, died of AIDS. Wellikoff marked the fourth AIDS death in the US (although, technically, they’d all died from KS). Four cases of KS deaths (which, by itself, isn’t deadly) in young, white, previously healthy, and gay, males gives the CDC all the information it needs: Ken Horne wasn’t an anomaly. The CDC appointed Dr. Don Francis, a specialist in infectious disease, to head up a small task force to determine what was causing KS in gay men.

By early 1981, the CDC had determined that there was something happening in the gay community. Because AIDS, as we know it today, hadn’t yet been identified, the previous cases of infection and death (a few prior to 1980, and not gay) weren’t documented. As far as the CDC, and any of the doctors treating these patients, was aware this was a new and curious disease. By May 1981, physicians in NYC and LA were noticing an increasing number of gay men reporting symptoms of pneumonia and KS, with no apparent cause. On 3 July, the NY Times runs a story about 41 men diagnosed with KS in NYC and San Francisco under the headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” On 4 July, five years after the American bicentennial, the CDC officially reports clusters of KS amongst gay men in LA, San Francisco and NYC… and Francis and his team have no explanations. By the end of 1981, over 121 gay men had died from AIDS (although their death certificates list KS or pneumonia), and the virus had spread to Europe… although, so far, almost all AIDS related cases were gay men. The CDC, in an attempt to stop the epidemic, requested federal funding for Francis’ team. The US government refused the funding, ostensibly because a gay disease wasn’t a government priority. The CDC quickly learned that denial of applications for extra funding for AIDS research would become the norm. Not only did the US government have no interest in a disease that was contained to the gay community, but the Reagan administration’s political supporters would have been furious with an administration policy that spent funding on a gay disease. Don Francis and his team were learning that shoe string budgets and cheap motels were their future. For the immediate future, Francis’ team would be doing their infectious investigation sans administrative support.

Francis was furious with the administrations lack of support for AIDS research. Not only was the CDC being denied extra funding, but so was the NIH (although, at the time, the NIH was receiving more funding by calling it ‘cancer’…and leaving out the gay). The limited funding being given by the Reagan administration to study AIDS (which was being called gay cancer by those less knowledgeable, but never on the floor of Congress) was so limited that the CDC and NIH had entered a no-holds-barred race to see who could discover the culprit fastest. Not only did both organisations want the bulk of the funding for AIDS, but they also wanted the credit.

Francis’ fury was not out of line. The lack of administration support for AIDS research was confusing to a man whose professional career was discovering and stopping infectious diseases. The US government wasn’t usually so tight with its purse strings when it came to possible epidemics, or cases of publish health, and the American media was not usually so silent. Although it was known that AIDS wasn’t just a gay disease by the summer of 1982, the stigma was already there. Doctors, politicians, even newspapers were reluctant to bring attention to a disease that was associate with gay men (read: immorality and promiscuity). The conservative culture of the 1980s was so pervasive that acknowledging AIDS as a pandemic wasn’t something anyone wanted to do. A gay epidemic they were willing to accept, but that something that had started in the gay community (or so everyone thought) was possibly showing up in anyone else was obscene. By the end of 1982 the US government knew the disease was transferrable by blood, that the disease was showing up in the nations blood supplies and being spread by junkies. Still it remained ‘gay cancer’ and the Reagan administration didn’t want anything to do with it.

Finding little to no support amongst national politicians, some men in the San Francisco gay community were forced to become activists on the backs of others apathy. These activist, coupled with the research of the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s research and the cooperation of Francis’ team, began to see that the world at large wasn’t entirely wrong: the uninhibited, promiscuous, anonymous, unsafe sex practices of a portion of the gay community was spread the disease at a rapid rate. Unfortunately, their recommendations only fuelled animosity within the gay community.

The recommendations laid out by the SFDPH and Don Francis’ CDC team was simple: stop having sex. The gay community in San Francisco was furious. They felt that the recommendations defied the entire reason so many gay had migrated to the castor and ignore the history of gay rights in the United States. SFDPH had one further recommendation, which would cause infighting amongst the gay community: close the bathhouses and ban sex from gay clubs. AIDS had become not only a fight for survival, it was now causing political infighting as well. From the perspective of those who’d migrated to the The Castro from other areas of the US in an effort to be accepted and understood and no longer hated for they were, the idea of closing bathhouse was indistinguishable from going backwards in the fight for gay rights.

When 1983 began, over 630 people were diagnosed with AIDS, and over 280 had died from it. Yet, no one on the national stage was discussing it. The NYTimes had done a total of six stories on AIDS between 1981 and 1983, not one was on the front page. Of those almost 300 who had died from the epidemic, not one death certificate listed AIDS as the cause of death. By the end of 1983, AIDS had spread to every continent on earth (save for Antarctica). As America entered another Presidential election year, work by infectious disease specialists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris had isolated the retrovirus that would become known as HIV. Don Francis of the CDC had sent samples of AIDS patients to the Institute, in an attempt to help the discovery of the disease. The Pasteur Institute didn’t have the funding problems the CDC did. The Institute’s perseverance paid off, and by 1985 an anti-body screening test was made available.

The 1984 Presidential election re-elected Ronald Reagan against former Vice-President Walter Mondale was a steal for the republicans: Reagan carried 49 of the 50 states. During the campaign, debates, and media frenzy of the election season, AIDS was never mentioned as a campaign issue. Aside from the floating of a bill in 1982 by Congressman Philip Burton from California, the word ‘AIDS’ hadn’t been mentioned on a national stage, and had not once been uttered by Reagan. The stigma of a gay disease prevented any politician who didn’t want directly attacked by family values and Christian rights groups from saying a word. Funding for AIDS research was being pulled out of the federal government coffers penny by penny. The majority of the funding for AIDS research in the US was being donated by private citizens.

While Reagan was running for re-election, gay rights activists in San Francisco were looking for a compromise. The talk of bathhouse closures, and subsequently the voluntary closures of many, coupled with the agonising fear the gay community lived in, resulted in a period of compromise. Education, and promotion of safe-sex practices, began in the Castro and spread out nationwide. The Christian right, which still wasn’t convinced that AIDS was anything more than an epidemic amongst gay men, loudly protested the idea of safe-sex education in public schools. The CDC, and the NIH, pressured the Department of Education and Reagan administration to allow teaching of safe-sex practices in schools. They were ignored.

In March 1985, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of an antibody test which successfully tests for AIDS, and ordered blood banks to test all blood and plasma intended for transfusion. The FDA also ordered blood banks to refuse blood donations from gay men and IV drug users. The FDA’s approval and ordering of blood testing is the first sign that the Reagan administration was willing to concede that AIDS was not just a disease for the gay community, and could be spread by blood contact. In July, actor Rock Hudson confirmed that he had AIDS, and had been diagnosed the previous year. A personal friend of Ronald Reagan’s, Hudson was the first celebrity to admit to having AIDS. Hudson died in October 1985, a month after President Reagan first uttered the term AIDS in a national press conference.

Although Hudson’s homosexuality was one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets, his death spurred the American public to see AIDS as the pandemic it was swiftly becoming. Hudson’s death showed the American public that AIDS was “a disease, not a moral affliction.” After Hudson’s death, the interest in AIDS as a cross-cultural disease rose. The American public was finally ready to accept that AIDS had spread outside the gay community. It was terrified.

In January 1986 the director of NIAID (National Instituted of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) told the NY Times that over one million Americans had already been infected with AIDS, and that the disease spanned every content. He further stated that at least three million Americans would be infected in 5 years if a cure wasn’t found. In reaction to the NIAID disclosure, in February President Reagan ordered the Surgeon General to prepare a secret report. Everett Koop wrote the report, and released it, in October, without allowing Reagan’s advisors to read it. The report showed that AIDS had spread to every gender, socio-economic group, and race in the United States, and was quickly spreading around the globe. AIDS had officially become a pandemic.

By the end of the Reagan administration over four million Americans had contracted AIDS, the disease had saturated almost every culture on Earth, and, in total, was responsible for over two million deaths. A disease that had begun in the gay community, ignored by American politicians because of the political climate of the 1980s, had spread around the globe in a decade. The conservative revolution of the 1980s, and the rise of the Christian right, had created a moral atmosphere in America not seen since the revivals of the mid-19th century. Although the political rights of homosexuals had seen advancement in the 1970s, conservative America and the stigma of AIDS would see the political fight gay rights take a step backwards.

Part XXII: Homosexuality, Politics, and the 1980s


[NOTE: I used AIDS to mean all manifestations of the HIV-virus… because, honestly, I’m not a sciency person and I didn’t want to have to explain the difference between HIV and AIDS…so, if you don’t know, google. ALSO: the virus that we call AIDS today wasn’t given a name until July 1982…before that it was called GRID (gay related immune deficiency) because prior to July 1982, all documented cases had been gay men.]

[History Note: It is almost impossible to pinpoint exactly when AIDS first entered the US, because the incubation period is long, and differs by person. So, I start in 1980, with the first officially confirmed case of AIDS in the US. ALSO: I don’t discuss ‘patient zero,’ which in the mid-80s was a big revelation. It has since been confirmed that ‘patient zero’ was in fact, not, and as stated above, it’d be just as difficult to pinpoint a ‘patient zero’ as an exact time of when AIDS founds its way to US shores.]

[Political Note: So, I know I went into probably way too much detail about the 1976 and 1980 elections, but it’s important. If you’re unsure what anything I’ve talked about means, or you’re not entirely sure how American presidential elections work, email and I’ll give you a quick rundown. In relation to the entire rest of the world, it’s actually really dumb, so don’t feel bad if you don’t get it.]

[DISCLAIMER: I skipped a LOT, I realise that. BUT, the purpose of this blog series is to give a political history overview of gay rights, in an attempt to explain the current LGBT political climate. I’m also aware that I almost entirely skipped politics of AIDS in other countries. This post is almost exclusively related to the US because the political atmosphere of the US in the late-70s and 80s is unique. If you want a more in depth, much more personal, much better written account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, read Randy Shilts’ And The Band Played On…or, if you’re anti-books, they made a decent movie (which stars some pretty awesome people: Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Ian McKellan, Richard Gere, BD Wong, Anjelica Huston…try Netflix, or HBOGo). Also good: Body Counts by Sean Strub… it’s also about 220 pages shorter. And both of Andrew Holleran’s books: Chronicle of a Plague, Revisted and Ground Zero. If you’re interested in the topic, I have a list of books, so just ask. ALSO: I tried to keep the political opinion commentary to a minimum. I’m pretty sure I failed miserably..but I tried.]

[DISCLAIMER II: I did a little harping on the Christian right, which shouldn’t be a surprise since I set up their influential beginnings in the last two posts here and here…please be aware that the rest of this series will feature STRONG relations between Christianity and politics in the United States. The 1980 election in the US created an entirely new political culture, which heavily influence politics of gay rights… while the majority of the rest of the world moved forward, the US went backward, mostly because of the influence of the Christian right. I say this as a warning…if you’re easily offended or are a supporter of the Christian right, the remaining 6 posts in this series will rile you.]

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