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Three Decades of HIV/AIDS: Are You Ready to Dance?

Part One

June 1, 2011

Bob Frascino, M.D.

Bob Frascino, M.D.

This is Part One of a three-part blog entry; read Part Two and Part Three of the series.

Hello BBBs (Bob's Blogosphere Buddies),

The friendly folks at Body Central have asked if I would interrupt my regularly scheduled blog-o-rants to address the following "question-on-the-street" in preparation for an upcoming feature on this year's Gay Pride celebration.

Question-on-the-Street: "What do you think generations of LGBT folks before or after yours need to understand about the way your generation has responded to HIV/AIDS?"

Hmm. I'm not exactly sure what street the folks at Body Central live on, but that question has never been discussed on my street and, in all honesty, seems a bit obtuse to me. How could I inform generations "before" mine? Wouldn't they be like, uh, oh I don't know, dead??? As for informing generations after mine, I would most likely just refer them to the excellent new production on Broadway of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart or perhaps have them read Randy Shilts' classic And The Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic or Paul Monette's Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. Perhaps even view the tearjerking 1989 film Longtime Companion or the absorbing new documentary from David Weissman, We Were Here. For those who might prefer a more straightforward scientific rendering of events and what transpired during the first quarter century of one of the world's worst pandemics and a discussion of why humanity failed to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, I might suggest they view the PBS/Frontline documentary "The Age of AIDS." (BBBs, if you haven't availed yourself of all of the above, they come highly recommended by the humble author of this blog.)


Nonetheless, despite these resources, apparently Body Central wants my personal commentary on their question as we approach this year's Gay Pride celebrations and the milestone 30th anniversary of the discovery of HIV/AIDS. I have way too much to say on this topic for a single blog (or even multiple blogs); consequently, I've decided to respond to my "homework assignment" by constructing a type of photoessay examining HIV/AIDS through the prism of mass media, Hollywood and pop culture, including how the media portrayed my own personal experience of being "virally enhanced." The reason for this approach is that I do believe that a picture can be worth a thousand words. Consequently I hope to be able to get my points across without using up too much bandwidth or cramming cyberspace with excessive verbiage. (Considering this wordy introduction it may be too late for that already!)

This exercise is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of my generation's response to the critical events of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I have no doubt volumes will be written detailing the horrendous political denial, discussing the tragic consequences of the social stigma, lauding the stunning scientific breakthroughs and criticizing the persistently inadequate prevention and awareness campaigns surrounding HIV/AIDS over the past three decades. I could blog about any of these topics ad infinitum. I'm also confident that as part of the Pride Celebration there will be much written depicting the outrage as well as the heroic activism of the LGBT community in response to HIV/AIDS and how these events indelibly changed gay culture. I'll leave those stories to others.

For a change I'm also not going to focus on science, immunology or medicine. Rather, I will chronicle how mass media and pop culture viewed and in many ways shaped events and attitudes surrounding HIV/AIDS as the crisis evolved. In doing so I hope the "ghosts of previous generations," as well as the generations destined to follow us "fifty-somethings," will gain insight into not only the way we responded to HIV/AIDS but also how we needed to respond to the general public's perceptions and misperceptions of the epidemic.

One final editorial comment: I know this is supposed to be an installment for "Pride" and although there are countless stories of the LGBT community's remarkable, pride-worthy and praiseworthy response to the pandemic, and I'm confident these stories will indeed be told, I've decided to take a slightly bigger-picture approach to what transpired. It's not really a story we as members of the human race should be proud of, but it's what I feel further generations need to hear and remember. I believe the wise words of the great Spanish philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." On that note, let's begin!

I'll start with my conclusion! The story of HIV/AIDS in late 20th/early 21st century America as seen through the prism of pop culture and the media is one of a burst of activism surrounded by years of incomprehensible silence and apathy.

Chapter One: SILENCE 1981-1984

On July 3, 1981, the New York Times reported a disturbing number of deaths attributed to a rare type of pneumonia and unusual cancer in young gay men. It was referred to as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Disorder).

New York Times headline: A Pneumonia that Strikes Gay Males
New York Times headline: Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals

Shortly thereafter doctors noted intravenous drug users' immune systems were similarly deteriorating. Red flags that something new and potentially devastating was occurring were flying around the medical community but few took notice, including the media. Pat Buchanan did use the opportunity to demonize gays and summed up the new Reagan Conservatives' view by editorializing in 1983 that "the poor homosexuals; they have declared war on nature and now nature is exacting an awful retribution."

Pat Buchanan

In much of the rest of the pop culture and the media, HIV/AIDS was ignored or simply treated as the punchline to crass jokes by Eddie Murphy and other "entertainers."

The non-gay community was in denial and HIV/AIDS was viewed as something that happened to "other" people, people who somehow deserved to be punished for their "lifestyle." Meanwhile, Arthur Ashe was receiving a transfusion of HIV-tainted blood

Arthur Ashe

and the obituary of AIDS victim Ricky Wilson of the B-52s listed lymph cancer as the official cause of death.

The B-52s.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) became the official name of the new disease in 1982. In 1983 Luc Montaigner at the Institut Pasteur discovered the virus that causes AIDS. Nearly a year later, in 1984, Secretary of Health Margaret Heckler

Margaret Heckler

with stunning hubris announced that Dr. Robert Gallo had discovered the virus that caused AIDS, ignoring completely Montaigner's previous work and scientific announcement. She also claimed that there would be a vaccine to prevent AIDS in two years. She was spectacularly (and infamously) wrong on both counts. But then again it was the Reagan Era. (President Ronald Reagan didn't discuss AIDS in a public forum until a press conference four years into the epidemic, by which time more than 12,000 Americans had already died. He didn't publicly utter the term "AIDS" until 1987.)


During this initial period, 1981-1984, when HIV/AIDS was first revealed as a major health crisis, pop culture, like the rest of America, was becoming silently fearful. Actors like Rock Hudson and performers like Liberace hid their afflictions. Hard rockers and rappers lashed out against gays while moralists and government officials said the disease was an appropriate consequence of promiscuity and homosexuality.

Aside from moralistic hostility, the overwhelming response from most Americans (and indeed the world) was one of shocking indifference and silence.

Stay tuned for the next chapter of Dr. Bob's chronicle of the early days of HIV/AIDS, later this month.

Want to get in touch with Dr. Bob? You can reach him through his "Ask the Experts" forum, by sending a message to the Robert James Frascino AIDS Foundation, or by leaving a comment for him below. (If it's a private message, or if it includes personal info such as your e-mail address or phone number, we won't post the comment, but we will send it along to him.)

Read more of Life, Love, Sex, HIV and Other Unscheduled Events, Dr. Bob's blog, at

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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
Three Decades of HIV/AIDS, Part Two
Three Decades of HIV/AIDS, Part Three
20 Years of Magic: How One Man's HIV Disclosure Inspired Others
More on the 30th Anniversary of AIDS

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Juan L. (Spain) Wed., Aug. 10, 2011 at 11:31 am UTC
Thank you for being such an inspiration, as a professional and as a person.
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Comment by: John (DE) Tue., Aug. 9, 2011 at 6:02 pm UTC
Wonderful analysis. Of course the response of our government, and the majority of society, to the epidemic was ignorant at best, and downright shameful at its worst. As you mention, this ought not be forgotten, lest history repeat itself.

But at the moment I am most interested in the strength, resilience, and courage of individuals and communities in responding to the AIDS crisis. In particular, I am planning a (mostly) qualitative study of the effects of AIDS on straight women who had/have close relationships with HIV-positive gay men. In other words, how did so-called 'fag hags' deal with the sudden, life-threatening illness of their friends? I use the term 'fag-hag' not to be offensive, or glib, but for clarity: I honestly cannot think of a more universally understood term to identify these amazing women I intend to study.

I am not aware of any previously published research on this topic. This is unfortunate, because straight women were integral in supporting their gay friends during this terrible illness. In fact, such women fought on the front lines, in the trenches, along side their gay brothers. Their fight was for the very lives of their dear friends with AIDS. I can't wait to learn more about them, and to share my findings with the HIV/AIDS community.

Any thoughts/reactions to this idea?
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Comment by: Queen (East Cleveland, OH) Tue., Jul. 5, 2011 at 7:48 pm UTC

I was just a CHILD when this came out I was very fortunate that we had nuns and priests who would talk about it fairly instead of pointing the finger at whoever (the Catholic school I went to), I wish there were more religious leaders like them. Complacency is going to kill us rather or not we are negative or positive (serostatus).
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Comment by: Leonel (Rosario, Argentina) Fri., Jun. 10, 2011 at 2:44 am UTC
Hi Dr. Bob! Thanks for this brief chronology, and for the list of films and resources included. I'll be sure to check them out asap. I've learned a lot from you and other doctors, both from the States and from my native country (Argentina), and as a result I've kept in good health and 'not virally enhanced'. So far, so good. I recently had birthday on june 1, so this little piece (which, I gather, is 'to be continued') comes as an unintended and unexpected birthday present to me. It's so cool that just every once in a while you come to realize that so many of the finest, most rewarding things in life! There you go, information, innovation, prevention, exchange, growth, development, and the future is all ours. Let's toast to the end of HIV-Aids in a forseeable future, to your health, mine, and to all the people, worldwide, who persist in making other people's life less of a burden. Cheers!
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Comment by: Steve M. (Los Angeles, CA) Tue., Jun. 7, 2011 at 1:14 am UTC
Thank you for your first chapter. It's a privilege to see anything you put in writing. Not only are you the admiration to many across the globe, you are an inspiration and hero to us common folk, and you have a rocking purpose-driven life we mere mortals can only dream about. (I just thought I would send you a hug on behalf of your wordly cyber fans.)

What strikes me the most about this period you call 'silence' is the outright gross neglect and hostility. I realize your chapter only uses on word -- 'silence' -- but I think 'neglect' and 'hostility' are appropriate companions.

It is stunning to me, frankly, that many in the LBGT community had the courage to fight on and endure when the messages they received were a constant drum-beat of shame and guilt, coupled with a complete and total overt abondonment of this nation's responsibility to treat AIDS as a national crisis (let alone a world crisis). I believe during the early '80's, quarantine of those affected with AIDS was also a serious consideration -- kind of like the establishment of leper colonies.

This period was as much about the physical toll as much as the short and long term psychological damage to human beings that did not deserve this, regardless of what Pat Buchanan said.

This was a period of national shame in my opinion - a lesson we should never forget. (I'll refrain from any commentary I might have on the GOP's 'voucher' idea as the solution to our nation's health care challenges.)
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