Three Decades of HIV/AIDS, Part Two
Ignorance, Fear and Hysteria (1985-1990) and Activism (1990-1995)
On October 2, 1985, a bombshell dropped on Hollywood. Rock Hudson died of AIDS.
Now the deadly disease had a face.
Rock Hudson revealed he had AIDS and died less than three months later. The fear of this yet-to-be-understood killer suddenly could be seen and felt everywhere. A Life Magazine cover story raised awareness in the heterosexual community for the first time.
The title "Now No One Is Safe From AIDS" is fascinating, as it implied to the straight community that it was somehow safe prior to Rock Hudson's death.
The increased awareness of HIV/AIDS quickly led to irrational fear.
By 1985 there were 15,948 cases of AIDS and 8,161 AIDS deaths. Ryan White, a youngster who contracted HIV from a tainted blood product used to treat hemophilia, was barred from attending public school.
AIDS hysteria flared dramatically across the country.
In pop culture Hollywood's Screen Actors Guild announced that open-mouth kissing was "a possible health hazard" and the general population quickly internalized this unwarranted fear.
It's interesting to note that to this day the "can I contract HIV/AIDS from kissing" question continues to be a QTND (question that never dies) in the Safe Sex and HIV Prevention expert forum on this Web site.
Rocker Sebastian Bach wore a shirt in concert asserting that "AIDS Kills Fags Dead."
Lyndon LaRouche sponsored a California ballot initiative calling for AIDS quarantines. Fear became woven into the subtext of American pop culture. Fatal Attraction, a film that screamed "screw around and it will come back to kill you" was a box office hit. In a nod to the dangers of sex, the producers of the James Bond movies decided the super-spy would bed only one woman per picture.
In 1986 Surgeon General C. Everett Koop issued a message to every U.S. household.
His call to action recommending that sex education begin at the earliest grade possible backfired and outraged his conservative base. The report stated "It is time to put self-defeating attitudes aside and recognize that we are fighting a disease, not people." He was the very first government official to tackle the problem. Unfortunately most Americans were not ready to face this reality head on.
In 1987, six years after the discovery of HIV/AIDS, President Reagan finally uttered the word "AIDS" for the first time in public. The FDA approved AZT, the first AIDS drug, at a cost of more than $10,000 per year, making it the most expensive drug in history. Also in 1987, Liberace died.
And AIDS activism was born as Larry Kramer founded ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).
Meanwhile three young brothers, all hemophiliacs infected with HIV, returned to school after being banned for a year. Shortly thereafter their home was burned to the ground by arsonists. 1987 must also be remembered as the year the Helms Amendment was passed by Congress. It prohibited federal dollars for most AIDS-education efforts, effectively blocking almost all effective HIV prevention for many years.
By 1988 there were 82,764 AIDS cases with 46,344 AIDS deaths. Among them Wayland Flowers.
Robert Mapplethorpe and Amanda Blake succumbed to AIDS the following year.
By 1991 AIDS cases had skyrocketed to 161,073 with 100,813 lives prematurely snuffed out. These included Keith Haring, Halston and Ryan White.
Hysteria, fear and ignorance were now rampant. It took fearless leaders in the entertainment industry, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Elton John, using their celebrity to get out important messages, such as "you can't get it from kissing." The purveyors of pop culture were beginning to understand that where governmental policy (or indifference) had failed, powerful messages in the media could succeed.
Steve and I have a larger-than-life portrait of Liz adorning one of the guest rooms in our home. It's personally signed by Ms. Taylor and is a constant reminder to us of her courage and compassion. (Sure, we could have arranged for a portrait of Elton, but let's face it, Liz is way more glamorous, right?)
Following Liz's lead other celebrities jumped on the bandwagon and formed AIDS charities and foundations, staged benefit concerts, organized AIDS awareness rallies and marches, and recorded public service announcements.
In 1991 Magic Johnson was declared a brave hero for publicly disclosing his infection and retiring from professional basketball. The death of Queen's Freddie Mercury, also in 1991, was seen as a cultural tragedy.
The red AIDS ribbon campaign began this year. 1991 holds particular significance for me, as it is the year the virus found me. I seroconverted to HIV positive in January 1991 following a severe hollow-bore needle-stick and laceration sustained while performing a procedure on a patient with advanced-stage AIDS. I have discussed at length the consequences of this fateful day in my life in previous blogs and elsewhere on this site. Suffice it to say I now had a unique and privileged view of the evolving pandemic. Unique because I was able to witness HIV from both sides of the examination table. Privileged because I had the knowledge and authority of an HIV physician specialist, but also the eyes, heart and soul of an HIV-positive patient.
1992 saw ACT UP push the FDA to accelerate the approval process for HIV drugs.
Their unconventional tactics, such as naked body painting, gained media attention. (This photo is a bit amusing if you happen to notice the one naked guy checking out the equipment on the guy next door. Even in the midst of AIDS activism, boys will be boys.)
Also noteworthy for 1992, Mary Fisher
and Bob Hattoy, both HIV positive, addressed the Republican and Democratic National Conventions respectively. Meanwhile Isaac Asimov
and Peter Allen
and Anthony Perkins
died. The word was getting out and AIDS had become the "cause célèbre." The number of deaths continued to skyrocket. Many, like Olympic Gold medalist Greg Louganis, continued to suffer in silence.
The death march continued in 1993 with the demise of Arthur Ashe
and Rudolph Nureyev.
The Real World brought the death of AIDS patient Pedro Zamora into every 15-year-old's living room.
People were finally listening as Time Magazine's cover story reported we were "Losing the Battle."
AIDS had become the number one killer of young Americans.
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.)