Thursday, March 10, 2011

"And the Band Played On"

is a 600 page epic just like War and Peace - without the Peace!  It details the very dawn of AIDS, and all its players - through 1985.  It's kind of like watching a mini-series on the American Indians.  You don't want to watch it because you know how it all ends (everybody dies, even the author), and you wish you could go back and tell those Indians to never help those pilgrims survive that first winter. 

Because AIDS was devastating undesirable populations (gays and drug addicts), there was no money,  manpower, or media interest while it could have been contained.  They couldn't even figure out it was a virus and thought it may be some agent - like poppers (!) -  which proves there is no such thing as time travel because if there  were, someone surely would have used that flux capacitator not just to go back and tell the red man: Say NO to Thanksgiving! - but to go back to  1981 and scream to science: It's not an environmental agent, it's a retrovirus! 

In the Kings Cross library, they had this big display up for Mardi Gras - on the history of the epidemic.  One portfolio was full of clipped obituaries from the gay papers, back when everyone was dying, with honest testaments like: John Taylor: Artist, Humanitarian, Stubborn Queen and photos of the victims, even sometimes in drag and under their full name it had in quotes: "Talullah". 

I'm caught in that paranoid aftermath of AIDS.  A bubble.  I don't know anyone who died from AIDS.  It's my luck and my loss.  This disease robbed me of a generation of would-be mentors, teachers, and big brothers.  What would I have learned had I known them?  What kind of contributions would those people had made were they not wiped out in their prime?

So I saw the giant volume: "And the Band Played On": politics, people, and the AIDS epidemic sitting there in this library display, and I picked it up.

The title refers to the band continuing to play as the Titanic sunk - or, in the author's words, "business as usual" and begins at the beginning, intertwining human stories and the medical/political history as it recounts the denial and delays, the pleas, the bureaucratic in-fighting, the glory-seeking scientists, the political ennui and apathy of everyone save a few scientists and the gay community which rallied to save itself.  It's all on parade in the one country in the world with the money and resources which could have squelched this syndrome straight away. 

It details the 1970's, when the US government leapt fiercely  into action, leaving no tampon unturned to cure Toxic Shock Syndrome and later Legionnaire's Disease, sparing no expense or scientist to isolate and discover the bacteria responsible.  In early 1982, a sociopath laced Tylenol tablets with cyanide in Chicago.  Again, the USA sprung into  action and, despite Reagan's domestic spending drought, spared no  expense to ensure the safety of the public from one lone killer.

The  tylenol episode killed 7 people.  By then, AIDS had killed hundreds - and  there was no public outrcry, no influx of money for research, no media blitz.  Just bodies piling up.

When hemophiliacs began getting AIDS, through blood transfusions, they refused to believe they could get that "gay" disease, and blood banks - the Red Cross most notably, refused to screen for the immune irregularities that may result in transfusion AIDS.  It was too costly. 

There are so many villains:  The Red Cross.  Doctors who held off on disclosing lab results or findings so they could be published in a medical journal first.  Dr. Gallo, feuding with the French, who had isolated the virus first.  No life too precious to risk losing a Nobel!  A silent, especially despicable New York Mayor Ed Koch.  President Ronald Reagan.  "History will recall, Reagan did the least of all".  He didn't mention AIDS until more Americans had died of it than died in the Vietnam War.

Without those in the bully pulpit saying anything - and the mainstream press not reporting on anything as unsavory as gay sex (sodomy, eeek!) - AIDS - with its long incubation period (5-10 years, in cases) was, in the meantime, being spread around during delays when it could have been contained.

Silence = Death.

The first mainstream press that wrote about the  epidemic only when heterosexuals were being affected.  The government did as little as possible, and only when the "general public" was at risk.  The scourge of society were not, presumably, part of the "general public".  Then came Rock Hudson in his greatest role.  The virus needed his star power to get traction on funding and testing and reporters reporting.  The thousands who died before did not matter so much.

The gay community split between those in denial, calling doctors  and activist gays "traitors" because they wanted to shut down  bathhouses, and HIV antibody testing.  As a  persecuted population, it's easy to understand the mistrust. Imagine  your whole life subject to irrational bigotry.  Your friends are now dying, the government  isn't doing anything, the press isn't reporting, the public  hates and fears you - and they want to close the bathhouses and  require antibody testing.  It's all part of a master plan to determine your sexuality, fire you from your job, call "pre-existing condition" on your health care, and ultimately quarantine  and haul you into the boxcars.

Genocide conspiracies are easy to extrapolate -like this: "the government created AIDS  and injected it into gay men who volunteered for the hepatitis vaccine  trial in the late 70's".  It is a profound sense of alienation.  You can't even trust your family!  How many families swooped in to pick up the body of the son who died of  AIDS, take the inheritance, snub the long time lover, and put on a  private church funeral announcing their son had in fact died tragically of cancer?  As one journalist  put it, since families were too ashamed to put the true cause of death in the obituary of a real newspaper: "What  if we had an epidemic, and nobody died?"

Or the 1984 republican campaign sticker proclaiming: AIDS: it's killing all the right people." 

But you see a disease doesn't do that.  A virus doesn't discern between republican, democrat, gay, straight, catholic, american, kenyan, red and yellow black and white. And it was this failure to contain - due to a failure to care - that this massive epidemic has killed 25 million and counting...many of them considered part of the "general public".

With the villains, there are heroes.  Those who came on board the fight before it was popular: Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds, Mother Teresa. The gay community, despite their in-fighting, organized AIDS hospice and meals and crisis volunteers, and health centers and all with private funding.  That handful of doctors who worked tirelessly with limited funds because they couldn't stand to see so many young men die such gruesome, wretched deaths.

And many victims themselves - facing certain annihilation with courage and gallows humor.  The one who told the doctor, his face disfigured by purple KS lesions, that it wasn't even his favorite color.  "I don't have any handbag to go with it." 

The author, Randy Shilts, writes in the intro:
The people for whom I will always bear special reverence are those who were suffering from AIDS and who gave their last hours for interviews, sometimes while they were on their deathbeds laboring for breath.  When I'd ask why they'd take the time for this, most hoped that something they said would save someone else from suffering.  If there is an act that better defines heroism, I have not seen it.

I was just a kid when most of the gay men of my parents generation went extinct.  But I felt a certain affinity with them, even back then.  By the time I was 12, everyone at school told me I had AIDS.  If I was born ten or twenty years earlier - maybe I would have died, too, or sat beside them in the hospital.  Either way, we would have made the nurses laugh.  And either way, maybe I would've lived something more important  than I am living now?

Part of me envies the purpose with which some of these people  lived, post diagnosis.  Those survivors who were shocked into action and activism.  The sick who found immediate, laser-centered purpose.  What was it like to simultaneously face 100% fatality, and yet find something to truly live and fight for?  They were like fucking Tecumseh. 

I feel a sort of obligation to honor this lost generation, but how?  Will a younger generation listen, and are survivors ready to talk?  Many are unwilling to bring up that period: "It's too depressing" or are still too bitter and/or angry to the point of psychosis.  Larry Kramer - undoubtedly one of the heroes of this time period, having  begun both GMHC and ACT-UP and written "the Normal Heart", had this to say last month about Adolf Ronald Reagan, on what would have been his 100th birthday.

It's no wonder there is serious Post  Traumatic Stress Disorder going on.  How was it any different than seeing your mates blown up in a war and then coming home to find out nobody noticed? 

The monumental failure to contain AIDS means now that it is and has and will affect people worthy of life:  Heterosexuals.  Children.  The "general population".   Why can't we see that we are all the same?  Why can't we help others through the harsh winters?   If I could time travel, I wouldn't tell the Indians not to help out the Pilgrims.  I would warn the Pilgrims to honor and respect and be grateful to the Indians.  Then I would tell the Pilgrims that their hats are ridiculous.

Why do we hear a report on an airline crash in Iran with 68 fatalities and announce: "2 Americans were reported among the dead" as if the other 67 weren't as close to us.  We make up and then adhere to these artificial boundaries of country and color and religion and sexuality and UCLA vs USC, when we are all the general population.  Why can't love learn to be as indiscriminate as a virus?  Why can't human beings infect each-other with love; replicate it, re-infect and super-infect, blind and contagious? 


Chad Darnell said...

Incredible book. Incredible research. When I was writing the screenplay for HERE'S WHAT WE'LL SAY, I spent days up at the library in San Francisco going through the nearly hundred boxes of files, research, notes and materials Randy Shilts donated to the library. It was like touching a ghost.

Jesse Archer said...

his death really is the harrowing punctuation to this incredible piece of journalism. Yes, the research!!
Unbelievable documentation.
I presume you were researching his other book on how the military treated gays?
Is your script being made? Are they producing quality scripts this year? ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your heartfelt and passionate post on "And the Band Played On" and society's shameful treatment of AIDS victims in the '80s. It was a clear moral failure: a failure of our obligation to extend compassion to all our fellow human beings.

Your concluding sentence points to the problem. I believe love is contagious. Unfortunately there are evil competing viruses out there. But as you eloquently point out, love is the best antidote.


Anonymous said...

And the Band Played On and On and still plays On.

In 1969 - the year of the birth of the seeds of our Mardi Gras, the year of Stonewall - the year the first GAP store opened - the year we first walked down Sesame Street - the year of Woodstock - but also the first year that HIV is recoded as moving from Haiti to mainland and main street USA.

Great post Jesse a really good piece.

Bob Frank said...

The movie was also very powerful. It is one of those films that is fascinating to watch even though it documents a tragedy.
Your points are very well taken. Reagan was an abomination. It irks me to think that people consider him to be a great president when (until George W. Bush came along)he was perhaps the worst.
I wish young gay men would take all the necessary precautions against getting this horrible disease. They need to read the book and see the movie.