And the Band Played On

February 01, 1988  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  the American Spectator  ·  Aids

The doctors at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta called him "Patient Zero." A stunningly handsome French-Canadian airline steward, Gaetan Dugas had over 2,500 male sexual partners on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean by the time he died at age 31.

It was in France, the doctors think, that he picked up the AIDS virus. Thence he brought the virus to both San Francisco and New York, where he infected partners through anonymous bathhouse sex and pickups from gay bars. At least forty of the first 248 homosexuals diagnosed with AIDS as of April 12, 1982 had had sex either with Dugas or with someone who had. ("Typhoid Mary" Mallon, by contrast, had fifty-three confirmed cases attributed to her, of whom three died.)

Long after his diagnosis, Dugas would sodomize willing partners in dimly lit cubicles, then turn up the lights and point to the purplish Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions on his skin. "I’ve got gay cancer," he would say. "I’m going to die, and so are you."

Rock Hudson

No one will ever be certain whether Dugas was the one who began the AIDS epidemic in the United States, but it would be fitting if he was. For the way he continued business as usual — or pleasure, as it were — even after his diagnosis is representative of the larger tale of miscreants and fools told in Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, a remarkable feat of investigative journalism that traces the AIDS epidemic from the death of Danish physician Margrethe Rask, a lesbian who contracted AIDS in Africa in 1976, up to mid-1985 and the death of Rock Hudson.

An openly homosexual writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and the nation’ s first full-time AIDS reporter, Shilts names names, slams reputations, and yet poignantly testifies to those few who fought desperately to get the band’s attention and those who died horribly while it continued to play.

Introducing the members of the band:

"Fast lane" homosexuals. Some homosexuals racked up as many as a mind-boggling 20,000 sexual partners, engaging in high-risk (receptive anal) acts long after it became apparent that a fatal illness was spreading through the homosexual populations of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Scoffing at advice to limit partners and avoid such activity, many homosexuals continued going to bathhouses, readily infecting themselves with the AIDS virus and passing it on to others.

Homosexual leaders such as Konstantin Berlandt, a columnist for the Bay Area Reporter, shed new light on the debate over whether homosexuality is genetic or acquired by stating, "I didn’t bccome a homosexual so I could use condoms." Later Berlandt wrote: "Advice on safe sex, while perhaps well-meaning, is actually collaboration with the death regime that delights in blaming ourselves and would pin the blame onus." Berlandt also used his column to make a pitch for "rimming," known in other circles as oral-anal contact and then considered to be a high-risk activity for contracting AIDS. According to Berlandt, the practice could be "spiritually uplifting."

Other homosexuals saw profit in the epidemic, as did the San Mateo doctor who promised to cure AIDS with massive doses of — you guessed it — Vitamin C. Still others made desperate efforts to pretend that the syndrome was not sexually transmitted, such as the homosexual psychologist who wrote a series of articles maintaining that AIDS victims all had suffered an "emotional emergency" as children that was now manifesting itself as fatal immune suppression.

The bathhouse owners. Even before AIDS, notes Shilts, "the bathhouses were a horrible breeding ground for disease... A Seattle study of gay men suffering from shigellosis [a parasitic disease most efficiently transmitted by ingestion of feces], for example, discovered 69 percent culled, their sexual partners from bathhouses. A Denver study found that an average bathhouse patron having his typical 2.7 sexual contacts risked a 33 percent chance of walking out of the tubs with syphilis or gonorrhea. . . ." All of which prompted one doctor in 1980 to remark, "If something- new gets loose here, we’re going to have hell to pay." Yet even after hell broke loose, bathhouse owners refused to close up shop or even display safe-sex posters. Instead, they treated the AIDS epidemic in the way Amity businessmen treated news of the shark in the movie Jaws the less said, the better. As one callous owner explained to Dr. Paul Volberding, "We’re both in it for the same thing. Money. We make money at one end when they come to the baths. You make money from them on the other end when they come out."

The San Francisco Health Department, which recently forbade all smoking in government offices on public health grounds, delayed putting restrictions on the bathhouses for several years so as to not offend the homosexual lobby. It wasn’t until 1987 that the last bathhouse closed its doors.

Blood bank operators. Like the bathhouse owners, blood bank operators faced the AIDS problem by ignoring it. By late 1981 there was reason to believe that AIDS was a bloodborne virus like hepatitis B and that it would turn up in blood transfusions by mid-1982 the CDC had reported that hemophiliacs had contracted AIDS through clotting factor. Yet in December 1982 an officer of the American Association of Blood Banks went on network television to say flatly that there still was no evidence that transfusions spread AIDS. It’s not that there was no way to screen blood. One method, rejected as too expensive, was to test for antibodies to the core of the hepatitis B virus, antibodies ubiquitous in the blood of AIDS patients. Another method was to ask members of high risk groups to exclude themselves voluntarily.

But at a meeting of all the major blood banking organizations it was announced that no such screening would be tolerated. "Direct or indirect questions about a donor’s sexual preference are inappropriate," read the official statement. Dr. Roger Enlow, a New York homosexual physician and a leader of the American Association of Physicians for Human Rights, praised the policy. "We’ve preserved not just gay rights," he said, "but the human right to privacy and individual choice." Except, of course, for those who chose not to die of a horrible disease simply because they needed blood products. In his epilogue Shilts writes, "An estimated 12,000 Americans were infected from transfusions largely administered after the CDC had futilely begged the blood industry for action to prevent the spread of the disease."

Homosexual Rights Groups and the Media. Shilts is not shy about going after his own. The book is replete with examples of callousness, overcaution, and sheer idiocy on the part of so-called gay rights organizations which consistently fought efforts to save homosexual lives — including such efforts as voluntary testing — alleging such measures were but the first step toward slapping pink triangles onto homosexuals and marching them off to the gas chambers. Shilts has told one writer that the press’s lack of AIDS coverage — until, that is, the disease appeared to threaten heterosexuals and until the death of Rock Hudson — makes it the "one institution with the most blood on its hands."

Public Health Authorities. The argument that public health officials and the Reagan Administration shortchanged AIDS research until it was perceived as a national, and not just a homosexual and drug addict, problem is much more contestable. Hindsight is always 20-20; it’s easy to see now that much more money should have been spent much more quickly on AIDS. But hindsight also tells us that those same public health authorities strongly overreacted to the Swine Flu scare in the mid-1970s. Would funding have been substantially different if the afflicted had been, to use one congressman’s comparison, tennis players instead of homosexuals? This is something that Shilts can’t establish, even with the hundreds of memos he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Shilts can’t resist a parting shot at President Reagan. "Already," writes Shilts, "some said Ronald Reagan would be remembered in history books for one thing beyond all else: He was the man who had let AIDS rage through America, the leader of the government that when challenged to action had placed politics above the health of the American people." That may be how some homosexuals will view Reagan’s presidency, but most historians, with the help of Shilts’s book, will conclude that, although many share the blame for the AIDS epidemic, those primarily responsible were its prime victims, the homosexuals themselves.

The issue is not and never has been, as Konstantin Berlandt contends (in Shilts’s paraphrase), "society’s responsibility to find the medical technology to prevent all sexually transmitted diseases rather than the gay community’s responsibility to keep sexuality in line with what medical technology can cure."