FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Surviving Hate and Death—The AIDS Crisis in 1980s USA

by

The early 1980s were a scary time for gay men in the United States. I lived in Berkeley across the San Francisco Bay from one of the nation’s biggest gay communities. The news media was beginning to run more and more stories about a “new gay cancer.” Friends of mine who were both gay and male told me about a growing fear of some kind of disease that seemed to be spreading in the gay men’s community. The first obvious signs seemed to be a series of lesions that appeared on the afflicted individual’s body. This was accompanied by other illnesses that just would not go away no matter what medicines were tried. When I would be hanging out with these friends smoking weed, they would warn me not to smoke from the same bong or pipe. I didn’t know how serious to take their warnings. By 1985, four of my friends had died from the disease and at least six more were ill from it. By then, the disease was known as Auto Immunity Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which was a better name for it than its original name Gay Related Immune Deficiency, but there were still very few answers regarding its origins or treatment. Also, by 1985, the disease was appearing in other segments of the population, especially intravenous drug users.51wo3zzp4bl-_sx341_bo1204203200_

Opportunistic right wing politicians and hateful preachers were calling the epidemic the work of a wrathful god, while most liberal politicians were just ignoring it. The Reagan White House—a den of both opportunistic rightwingers and hate—refused to acknowledge the epidemic at all. Given this neglect, most medical providers were neither capable of treating those with the disease or slowing its transmission. The only humans willing to go into this abyss of neglect were some medical practitioners who were treating hundreds of people with AIDS, some People with AIDS and some of their lovers and friends. Homophobia was still a very dominant social reality in 1980s United States and gays and lesbians were legally and openly discriminated against in every walk of life.

This is the world author David France describes in his new book How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. This more than 500 page work is a tour de force of reporting. A gay man who wrote about the AIDS epidemic for the New York alternative journal The New York Native from the days of the public’s first knowledge of the disease, France provides a history of the grassroots struggle to find a treatment that would allow People With AIDS (PWA) a means to live. The narrative he creates describes an uphill battle against the aforementioned political and religious establishment, a medical establishment with its own issues of homophobia and a pharmaceutical industry whose concern for maximum profit overrode most humane motivations. He weaves a personal history into his broader detailed text describing the arc of both the epidemic and the efforts to find a treatment.

This means that personal tales of his friends with AIDS bring an emotional emphasis to his descriptions of medical discoveries, patient advocacy, and battles with corporate chiefs and doctors more or less in their pocket. There are also accounts of the weekly meetings of various AIDS activist organizations, most prominently those of New York City’s chapter of ACT UP. The internal politics of these meetings are part of the narrative, too. There are heroes and there are villains. However, in France’s telling, both come across as three dimensional humans who cannot help but be affected by the constant death around them. That in itself means the supposed villains commit heroic acts while the supposed heroes occasionally expose their venal side, too. The detailed reportage of some of the ACT UP protest actions are simultaneously humorous, instructive and heart-wrenching. The impatience, fear, humor and determination of the ACT UP activists is at once tragic, courageous and audacious. As a protest organizer myself, the protests and actions described in How to Survive a Plague reminded me of how much ACT UP added to the nature and possibilities of political protest.

The 1980s were fearful times. The right wing was resurgent and neoliberal capitalism was beginning it profit-driven march to rule the world at the expense of working people, the environment and common sense. This fact is also part of France’s narrative. He describes the fight to get pharmaceutical companies—specifically Wellcome Burroughs—to lower its prices on AZT, the primary AIDS drug at the time and the drug company’s resistance to doing so. If one was a gay man, the fear present in the 1980s was increased at least ten fold. As the decade wore on, that increase of fear would be felt in numerous other subcultural communities in the United States and on the African continent, where AIDS was ravaging the population. Still, the pharmaceutical industry was looking for profit maximization.

How to Survive a Plague ends on a somewhat positive note culminating in the development of an understanding of how the virus worked and the manufacture of drugs to fight it. Nowadays, HIV and AIDS remain commonplace but are no longer the death sentence they once were. This medical fact is largely due to the persistence, intelligence and organization of the individuals and groups whose story is chronicled in David France’s text.

This work is an excellent history. The author skillfully weaves intimately personal tales of men suffering with AIDS and their efforts to find a cure with a broader history of the crisis. In the telling, the reader discovers the homophobia and venality of much of the government, the medical profession, and most of the religious establishment. At once both a medical thriller and political history, How to Survive a Plague is an achievement without any parallel to date; it is important, essential and very well told.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

July 24, 2017
Patrick Cockburn
A Shameful Silence: Where is the Outrage Over the Slaughter of Civilians in Mosul?
Robert Hunziker
Extremely Nasty Climate Wake-Up
Ron Jacobs
Dylan and Woody: Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad
Dan Glazebrook
Quantitative Easing: the Most Opaque Transfer of Wealth in History
Ellen Brown
Saving Illinois: Getting More Bang for the State’s Bucks
Richard Hardigan
The Media is Misleading the Public on the Al-Asqa Mosque Situation
Matthew Stevenson
Travels in Trump’s America: Memphis, Little Rock, Fayetteville and Bentonville
Ruth Fowler
Fire at Greenfell
Ezra Kronfeld
The Rights of Sex Workers: Where is the Movement to Legalize Prostitution
Mark Weisbrot
What Venezuela Needs: Negotiation Not Regime Change
Binoy Kampmark
From Spicy to the Mooch: A Farewell to Sean Spicer
Wim Laven
Progress Report, Donald Trump: Failing
Weekend Edition
July 21, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Kevin Zeese
Green Party Growing Pains; Our Own Crisis of Democracy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Red State, Blue State; Green State, Deep State
Paul Street
“Inclusive Capitalism,” Nancy Pelosi, and the Dying Planet
Anthony DiMaggio
Higher Education Fallacies: What’s Behind Rising Conservative Distrust of Learning?
Andrew Levine
Why Republicans Won’t Dump Trump Anytime Soon
Michael Colby
Ben & Jerry’s Has No Clothes
Bruce Dixon
White Liberal Guilt, Black Opportunism and the Green Party
Edward Hunt
Killing Civilians in Iraq and Syria
Matthew Kovac
Is the Flint Water Crisis a Crime Against Humanity?
Mark Harris
The Revolutionary Imagination: Rosa for Our Times
David Rosen
America’s Five Sex Panics
Robert Fisk
Saudi Arabia: the Kingdom Whose Name We Dare Not Speak At All
Jack Heyman
Class War on the Waterfront: Longshore Workers Under Attack
Kim C. Domenico
Marginalize This:  Turning the Tables on Neoliberal Triumphalism
Brian Cloughley
Trying to Negotiate With the United States
John Laforge
Activists Challenge US Nukes in Germany; Occupy Bunker Deep Inside Nuclear Weapons Base
Jonathan Latham
The Biotech Industry is Taking Over the Regulation of GMOs From the Inside
Russell Mokhiber
DC Disciplinary Counsel Hamilton Fox Won’t Let Whistleblower Lawyer Lynne Bernabei Go
Ramzy Baroud
The Story Behind the Jerusalem Attack: How Trump and Netanyahu Pushed Palestinians to A Corner
Farzana Versey
The Murder of Muslims
Kathy Kelly
At Every Door
David W. Pear
Venezuela Under Siege by U.S. Empire
Maria Paez Victor
Venezuelan Opposition Now Opposes the People
Uri Avnery
Soros’ Sorrows
Joseph Natoli
The Mythos Meme of Choice
Clark T. Scott
High Confidence and Low Methods
Missy Comley Beattie
Glioblastoma As Metaphor
Ann Garrison
Organizing Pennsylvania’s 197: Cheri Honkala on Frontline Communities
Ted Rall
What Happened When I Represented Myself as My Own Lawyer
Colin Todhunter
Codex Alimentarius and Monsanto’s Toxic Relations
Graham Peebles
Europe’s Shameful Refugee Policy
Louis Proyect
Reversals of Imperial Fortune: From the Comanche to Vietnam
Stephen Cooper
Gov. Kasich: “Amazing Grace” Starts With You! 
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail