How scientists and citizens banded together to lift the death sentence from AIDS.
It may be hard for anyone not alive at the time to comprehend how devastatingly the AIDS epidemic announced itself in the early 1980s and how resolute the Ronald Reagan government was in doing nothing about it. Emblematic was Jesse Helms, the North Carolina segregationist senator who argued in support of an amendment bearing his name to prohibit research and treatment funding, which he said would “promote, encourage, or condone homosexual activities.” Other bills introduced at the time included a suite that, among other things, “sought to bar people with AIDS from practicing in the health care industry, even as X-ray technicians.” Matters in the government did not begin to turn around, writes documentarian/journalist France (Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal, 2004), until the Democrats took the White House, following a testy exchange with activists in which candidate Bill Clinton “cast himself as a better friend to people with AIDS than people with AIDS themselves.” It was those activists and their unflagging efforts, France documents, that kept the matter of AIDS and funding for its treatment in the public eye and on the political table, and while the long battle exhausted many—as France writes, there was a second epidemic of drug use, attributable to the self-medication of the traumatized—it was also extraordinarily effective in rallying both public and scientific/medical support. The result was a transformation of the disease—not just a physical one, with medications developed and made available that could “regenerate a person’s immune system,” but also a social one, with much of the stigma lifted from the ill. All this, as the author notes in closing, was accomplished by angry, vocal people out in the streets—a very good lesson for activists engaged in other issues today.
A lucid, urgent updating of Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On (1987) and a fine work of social history.