As is true for most gay people, my knowledge of queer history is pretty sketchy and consists of four basic (and possibly incorrect) facts:
- A whole lot of famous historical figures–Gandhi, Willa Cather, Shakespeare, Michaelangelo, Henry James, Julius Caesar, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln–experienced same-sex attraction.
- Other cultures have different kinds of homosexuality–ladyboys in Thailand; hijiras in India; Two-Spirit people amongst Native American tribes–that are kind of similar to the Western conception of homosexuality but also kind of different.
- Even progressive, liberal people in America felt okay about openly discriminating against gay people until 1969. Then after Stonewall proved that gay people were capable of initiating civil disorder, progressive liberals had to at least start tolerating the gays.
- HIV/AIDS pretty much wiped out the generation of gay males that came of age during the late 70s and early 80s.
I’ve long felt that I ought to remedy this lack of knowledge. And, ever since I read a blog post by my friend Becca, I’ve long known exactly what book I should use to begin my exploration of queer history: Randy Shilt’s epic history of the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, And The Band Played On.
And that was kind of the problem. This is one of those massive 400,000 word tomes, and I just didn’t feel like I had the time or energy for that. But ten days ago or so, I decided that my cross-country drive would be the perfect time to tackle the book.
Big mistake! This book is terrifying. It took over my life and quite literally gave me nightmares. I wasn’t more than a tenth of the way into the book before I started seeing Karposi’s Sarcomas everywhere: every cut, bruise or pimple looked like a sign of AIDS to me. Also, I started getting this horrible itching sensation all across my body while I read it. I’m not sure how that relates to AIDS, but I think it was a symptom of an overall anxiety.
Normally I’m pretty divorced from gay issues in particular and all human suffering in general. But it was hard to avoid the thought that the people in this book were people just like me. Many of them were well-off, privileged men. They had no idea that they were doing anything dangerous. And then they got this illness and died.
And they did it without any sort of pity or help from the society in which they lived. Almost no one in this book comes off looking good. The AIDS researchers are selfish and intellectually dishonest. The CDC and NIH are timid and overly-docile. Even gay organizations are short-sighted–they keep worrying that the disease is going to set back the political gains they’ve made. And the government and news media are just colossally apathetic. The only times they pay attention to the disease are when it looks like it might be starting to affect straight people.
This book was published in 1987. It is more of a work of journalism than a work of history. It proceeds chronologically, from early in 1980 to late in 1985, and it is told primarily through scenes. There is not as much direct explication as one would expect. Actually, the book feels a little old-fashioned. It’s clearly taking its cues from the New Journalists (Capote, Mailer, Wolfe, Didion, Thompson), but reading this book made me realize how out-of-fashion that sort of novelistic nonfiction has become. Nowadays, nonfiction novels have kind of fused with nonfiction explications to become what I call the novelistic explication. These are books in which the main scenes and plot points are told in scene (and in which the author is often also a character in the book), but which also contain long meditations on whatever topic the author feels is relevant. Examples of this genre would be the works of Malcolm Gladwell and Robert Caro, or the recent best-seller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I’ve come to expect that all pop nonfiction books will be novelistic explications, so much so that I kept expecting this book to break out of the chronology and go off on some big tangent about the medical characteristics of HIV/AIDS or the effect of the panic on schoolchildren or, well, something like that.
But it doesn’t. It just keeps going on and on and on. People keep catching the disease. Researchers keep researching. Government officials keep begging for money. The press keeps ignoring the problem. And people keep dying. The book has a very inside-the-trenches feel.
I guess this is the right place to point out that the author of this book was deeply inside this particular trench. Randy Shilts was an openly gay reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who both covered the AIDS epidemic and actively participated in Bay Area gay society. He knew that there was a good chance that he was infected with the virus but he didn’t get tested until the book was completed. He turned out to be HIV positive. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1994.
- It’s interesting to think about the ways in which AIDS affected the direction of the gay rights movement. In the 80s milieu described in this book, many gay men thought that the sex-positive environment ushered in by gay liberation was a glorious and beautiful part of the movement. They denounced AIDS educators as self-hating gays who were trying to impress heterosexual values (monogamy and fidelity) onto the still-young gay liberation movement. This clash between assimilation and liberation is still a part of gay culture, but it’s pretty clear from the prevailing gay rights debates (over same-sex marriage and the right to serve in the military) that the assimilationist wing won out. I assume this is because the more sex-positive types were more likely to die.
- I wonder what lesbians thought about AIDS? It’d be pretty weird to be hanging out in San Francisco, just doing what you do, and then suddenly see most of your allies fall sick and die.
- Shilts has a wonderfully cynical paragraph explaining why America didn’t really blame the gays for catching HIV/AIDS.
Most Americans believe that bad people do not die young.
There is something tragically romantic about untimely death. Ultimately, it was this emotional factor, more than any other, that shielded gays from the horrible backlash they so dreaded. This kinder side of the nation’s psyche would prevail over the demagogues who talked of God’s wrath. Moreover, gays themselves were by now in the business of romanticizing premature death. At the Shanti Project, where scores of gay men were signing up as grief counselors, the more experienced gurus of mourning talked of “going to the other side,” as though AIDS were a train ticket to some Xanadu of peace and serenity. Such sentimental notions guaranteed success for the candlelight marches assembling all over the United States that night.