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

Part One

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: 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.)

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