As the World lives through the most recent life taking pandemic with Covid 19 (So named after the year it came to the World Health Organisations attention) with at the time of writing a quarter of a million deaths linked to it. The gay Worlds memory is taken back 40 years to the Anniversary of the AIDS outbreak ‘The Gay Cancer’ in 1980 with all the sorrow that bought, the myth of patient zero (a gay man damned forever by a typo), the end of bath houses & casual sex and the arrival of new terms such as HIV, meds and ‘Safe sex’. It is claimed that over the 4 decades there is not a quarter of a Million deaths but 150 times the number of Covid at 39 Million lost souls to AIDS which is mind blowing. Many were gay men including well known names such as Freddie Mercury and Rock Hudson all had family, partners and loved ones whose life was cut tragically short……and still at the 40th Anniversary there is no cure. PAUL STAG looks at how The AIDS Pandemic changed gay culture and life forever.
With the benefit of hindsight often as we expect with Covid the origins and signs go way back before the public perception of it’s arrival. It is generally thought now that HIV-1 had a mini pandemic in Central Africa 80 years earlier at the turn of that Century when humans first contracted it from monkeys. Scientists belief it was in Kinshasa, East Africa in the 1920’s. The first known men to die of it was in 1959 with one well recorded case in the Congo plus a Haitian shipping clerk in New York City. In 1966 it was thought to have arrived in the Americas on the Caribbean island of Haiti who had a lot of workers over in the Congo….see a pattern is starting to emerge. The first case in the States was two years later during the Summer of Love in ’68 and in Europe in particular Norway of all places 8 years on in 1976. It seems without question that HIV-2 which was the one that caused such decimation in the 80’s and beyond transmitted from Sooty Mangabey monkeys to humans in the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau at some point in the 60’s. It was a new disease with unknown sympton’s and just individual cases so went unnoticed until it hit the East and West Coast of the States and ‘Patient Zero’ in 1980.
It could not have hit the zeitgeist, media and gay men at a worst time. Many of our rights campaigns were bearing fruit and in the urban areas at least like NY, SF, Berlin, Amsterdam and London we were having a horny old time. We had gay porn, gay magazines, bath-houses, gay cinemas our music disco was everywhere and boy were we promiscuous with every hole a goal looking ahead to a fantastic new decade of more freedoms, more bum sex just as the Village People hit number one in the worlds chart chasing ‘young men’ all around locker room’s of the YMCA. Of course global travel was also more readily available and at some point someone bought HIV from Africa to most probably San Francisco by accident and changed the World forever and emboldened every homophobe and bible shagger to declare we were getting what we deserved. Basically someone fucked an ass unprotected in Central Africa and then another on the West Coast and the genie was out of the bottle
So it began in earnest. April 24 1980 , San Francisco resident Ken Horne is reported to the Center for Disease Control with Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS). Later in 1981, the CDC would retroactively identify him as the first patient of the AIDS epidemic in the US. Shortly afterwards a 36 year old Danish homosexual died of it in Copenhagen. The following year the UK and Spain had there first death and one year on it was the turn of Italy, Canada, Brazil and Australia making it a true Worldwide pandemic (although heavily ignored by the press and politicians at the time as presumably gay guys and ‘gay lives’ don’t matter). Back in 1980 Gaëtan Dugas pays his first known visit to New York City bathhouses and was to get the blame for the diseases spread to the West and the myth of Patient Zero was born.
Dugas was a 28 year old Canadian flight attendant who happened to be gay and like all of us homo’s at the time was very promiscuous – he claimed to have had over 2500 sexual partners between 1972 and 1980 (Many guys today would class that as being a lightweight such as the AT editor). A study published in The American Journal of Medicine in 1984 traced many early HIV infections to an ‘unnamed’ infected gay male flight attendant. Initially, however, the CDC researcher, Dr. William Darrow, who was studying cases in Los Angeles, California, referred to Dugas as “patient O”, the letter “O” standing for simply “Out-of-California” which the media mistakenly started referring to as ‘Patient Zero’ and as a scape goat was needed one had been found that was easy for the hysterical straight press and TV New to hang things on. ‘This all came from one man spreading it to another and then exponentially paying HIV forward’ it is a lazy simplistic hetero view that was easy to put across to the great unwashed straight public.
Dugas is featured prominently in Randy Shilts’s incredible gay book ‘And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic’ (1987). Which documents the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Shilts portrays Dugas as having almost sociopathic behavior by allegedly intentionally infecting, or at least recklessly endangering others with the virus – the modern term for which is ‘Stealthing’. Dugas is described as being a charming, handsome sexual athlete who, according to his own estimation, averaged hundreds of sex partners per year. Gatan Dugas died of AIDS in 1984 but modern 21st Century thinking and evidence has wholly dispelled the legend of ‘Patient Zero’ and who bought the disease to the West from Africa is not and will never be formally known. Shilts did review a lot of his thesis about Dugas before he sadly passed in the last decade – we all get things wrong but can you imagine what Gaetan went through at the time?
Slowly through the first couple of years of the Eighties the word got out about a strange new disease that was killing gay men. Headlines included ‘A Contagious Form Of Cancer’, ‘The Gay Cancer’ & ‘A Cancer You can Catch By Touch’ appeared. By the end of 1980 there were 4 cases of AIDS deaths, one year later at the end of 1981 there was 413 cases which a third had died of and there was no treatment and even worse no cure available – the similarities of Covid 19 exactly 40 years later is chilling. July 27 1982 the term AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is proposed at a meeting in Washington of gay-community leaders, federal bureaucrats and the CDC to replace GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) as evidence showed it was not gay specific although the media seemed hell bent on painting it as such.
One of the biggest heroes of the gay pandemic Larry Kramer formed The Gay Men’s Health crisis in New York City in ’81 and he became an eloquent speaker, figurehead and campaigner through those dark days. He was a renowned author and playwright who proudly pronounced that ‘He Was Tired Of Going To Funerals’ was great with the press and on TV bringing things home to anybody that would listen …..on the After Eight TV Show he said that ’20 of his friends in the last 18 months have died of the disease’ and he addressed the host ‘Just imagine how you would feel if 20 of your friends had died in just such a short period’. At the time of that statement the death toll was 400. His most famous article was called 1,112 And Counting and opened with the incredible warning ‘If This Article Does Not Scare The Shit Out Of You Then It Should’.
At this point everything is a whirlwind, gay men the World over are terrified, abstaining from sex or buying condoms faster than hair products, protein shakes & Burt Reynold’s DVDs. The media were all over the place with some trying to understand and anything right wing having the time off their lives with the biggest free hit at Gay men they have ever been given and a medical profession who had no idea what this disease was and how to deal with it. There are a million knee jerk reactions at this time that you can read in the many books on this subject such as Diane Feinstein’s attempts to close down all of San Fran’s bath houses and the great campaigner Cleve Jones (Of Harvey Milk fame) who railed against these extreme attacks on the gay World. Louie Welch a lovely individual running for Mayor in Houston Texas that gay loving part of Southern USA declared to the press that ‘ we Should shoot All The Damn Queers’ followed probably by ‘Please Vote For me’. Babies became infected, straight people died from it and there were statements like ‘Anyone testing positive for HIV/AIDS should be quarantined and tattooed so we can all see who they are’ so wonderfully helpful and understanding…..Hitler would have been so proud.
The race was on to find the virus and then a cure and there were Two leading health authorities at the forefront one in America and the other the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The Americans for presumably ego purposes were keen to be the first so they claimed they had found it which they had not, they got the glory but it was the French who actually traced the right bug and got things right. This was an era of increased homophobia and queer bashing with name calling off the hook and to those that wanted to believe such things all us fudge packers had AIDS and deserved it then suddenly the Oscar Winner for ‘Giant’, The Dynasty TV star and mega movie idol Rock Hudson announced in 1985 he had it and then perception changed. He paid to be treated in France by the Pasteur Institute as no where in America was as far forward largely as the politics of the right had dragged its feet & financing all along. (He was to die the same year from AIDS). In one week the disease got more publicity due to Hudson’s fame and perception that he was straight than the previous 6 years put together and then people got serious. Hudson’s huge friend Elizabeth Taylor started her AMFAR foundation and at one dinner she arm twisted then President Ronald Reagan into attending and when he said that ‘Any immigrants or visitors with HIV should be denied entrance to the Country’ – he was booed and heckled, many stood up and turned their back on him which provided a great powerful filmed moment of disrespect for the gathered media and film crews.
The main thing that started to turn the tide of the straight populace towards AIDS as a serious issue for all and not just a ‘fag disease’ was a school kid named Ryan White who is possibly the real legend of the early pandemic years. White was a haemophiliac who caught HIV/AIDS through blood transfusion and he was so young that no-one could even think of him as sexually active let alone queer. He looked great and was a good speaker and although he was pulled in and out of school many times and other parents pulled their kids out just as much so as their precious little bundles did not catch’it’ he went on to International fame. He was incredible on the likes of the Phil Donahue show – a programme which a year before had addressed sympathetically the issue inviting on Two HIV men but unbelievably the studio crew refused to touch the seats or furniture on that set or anything the HIV positive guys had been near – this was a lovely time indeed !!. Ryan would challenge Reagan on the issue as he increasingly became the AIDS poster boy a title he did not want or particularly like – these were just the cards he was dealt from birth. Ryan made HIV acceptable somehow and he sadly died in 1990 at just 18 years of age but his name lives on. The funeral was attended by many celebrities including Phil Donahue, Liz Taylor and Michael Jackson. The Ryan White Act is still in place in Law today and the American Congress then voted through the biggest funding for any single disease in History – AIDS was to be finally tackled head on.
It is a fascinating and stunningly important decade that all gay fetish players should learn about. There is Cleve Jones’ phenomenal AIDS symbolic quilt of 2000 panel’s laid out in Washington DC with all the victims names on. Larry Kramer co-founding the aggressive campaigning group ACT UP which became known as ‘The Greatest Protest Group Ever’ simply because it worked and achieved things – The group had scientists and wonderful PR people some gay men from Hollywood itself, ‘We basically found our own medicine’ and they took it to Fauci (yes he was important back then too) and the authorities ran with it. There is the fascinating tail of the 1960’s medical marvel ADT developed for other illnesses which in ’86 became a successful treatment for HIV – the downside was it cost $10,000 a year and most gay men could not afford that – it was at that point the most expensive drug in history but it was also the difference between life and death creating the ultimate gobsmacking dilemma.
A number of celebrities succumbed to AIDS such as the aforementioned Rock Hudson and Ryan White but also huge South American singers, massive British TV stars on through Scientists Isaac Asimov to the top sports stars such as Arthur Ashe & John Curry; Rudolph Nureyev, Actors Anthony Perkins (Psycho), Denholm Elliott (Indiana Jones’s boss) and Derek Jarman (Caravaggio and almost everything you have ever seen by the Pet Shop Boys), Studio 54’s owner Steve Rubell on to Liberace and off course the Worlds greatest showman Freddie Mercury together with 39 MILLION other victims all gone to soon. AIDS TV campaign’s and the biggest mail out ever all were too follow and it entered the media in every way such as Prince hit singles like Sign Of the times and Tom Hanks famous line in 1987’s comedy Dragnet where he proclaims – No condoms then no sex…..Hanks was of course to address the subject of AIDS later on in 1993 in the double Oscar winning (Best Actor & Best Song for Bruce Springsteen) story of ‘Philadelphia’ which was the brave first Hollywood Blockbuster Movie on the subject – the film cost 26 Million to make and it made back 10 times that at the box office…..AIDS was not a taboo subject anymore
Fourty years ago today in 1980 the gay world went from a fantastic happy disco party/bath house vibe to the pits of despair with death, fear, panic, uncertainty and anger everywhere – but there were heroes and incredible stories too. Four decades on we still have no cure but our chemists have given us incredible easy drugs to ensure that hopefully no gay men die before their time from HIV and we are more promiscuous than ever and we now have well known terms such as ‘Treatment As Prevention’ and U=U – Undetectable equals Untransmittable. Nowadays in fact HIV preventative medicines are even front and centre in the fight against Covid 19.