Randy Shilts: And the Band Played On

“By October 2, 1985, the morning Rock Hudson died, the word was familiar to almost every household in the Western world.

AIDS.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome had seemed a comfortably distant threat to most of those who had heard of it before, the misfortune of people who fit into rather distinct classes of outcasts and social pariahs.”

Randy Shilts graduated an openly gay man from the University of Oregon in 1975. In 1981 he was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle. It was also in this year that AIDS was becoming more prominent in the US. Committing himself to the disease he wrote on it years before he decided to write a book about it in 1983. The book was published in 1987 and Shilts died from complications of AIDS in 1994.

Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On is one of Shilts’ major works. Over the course of his journalism career he published 3 books. In 1982 he published The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. The biography of Milk was published about 4 years after Milk was assassinated with Mayor George Moscone by Dan White. White was about to finish his four year sentence for the murders when the book was published. His final book Conduct Unbecoming was about discrimination of gays and lesbians from the military. It was published in 1993 and he had performed thousands of interviews for the book. He dictated the final chapter from a hospital bed.

And the Band Played On stands out as an extensive and critical view of the AIDS crisis, covering all aspects of the disease, beginning with Danish doctor Grethe Rask in 1976 dying of Pneumocystis carinii in her lungs, and concluding with the death of AIDS activist Bill Kraus in January of 1986, when the amount of infected from AIDS in the US had reached over 30,000.

The work also stands out as a critique of the inaction during the crisis. Reagan first held a conference on the disease in May of 1987 and before that had not spoken the word AIDS at all. Several of his staff had consistently listed AIDS as a top priority for the administration, but in reality there were cuts to the funding given to AIDS over the years. On its budget of billions, the National Institute of Health gave only a few million each year to the disease. This was at a time when requests for AIDS research were reaching upwards of 55 million dollars. Shilts is frank in his critiques of the government and its apathy and inaction towards AIDS, and he points out homophobia as a primary cause of the apathy. It certainly seems to be the case, as certain incidents like Legionnaire’s Disease brought about quick action. It was estimated that $34,841 was spent for every death brought by that disease, yet only $3,225 was spent for every death of AIDS by the NIH in 1981.

Shilts also calls out the gay community in its inaction to prevent the disease. It was recommended early on that gay men should refrain from sex until the disease was better understood, but refraining from sex caught many as an anti-gay act. Some argued that telling gay men to stop having sex at a time when they were just starting to feel good about themselves would have dire consequences for the gay community. There was also the matter of the bathhouses, which Shilts advocated to shut down, despite harsh resistance against such an action in the gay community. Shilts noted that what little that was achieved in the bathhouses was small signs in corners warning about AIDS and condoms that were provided to those who asked. Nobody did. Shilts was harshly critiqued for his stance at the time.

New York activist Larry Kramer, who was part of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and was featured heavily in And the Band Played On

And why was the public so seemingly disinterested in the crisis? Perhaps their opinion closely mirrored that of Epstein. Gays were something one could tolerate, but only at a distance. Epstein believed that gays were akin to pedophiles and at best perverts. With this mindset one could understand a public sentiment that would allow the deaths to continue to occur. And perhaps this was a just end for the gay community. Because, after all, Epstein would wish away gays if he could. There was simply too much pain for them in this world. If only Epstein could wish them away then perhaps the AIDS crisis in the US would not have occurred. At this time in the US such thoughts were still prevalent, and notable in actions, or inactions could be the product of this. Like the mayor of New York Ed Koch and President Reagan, who both seemed to avoid AIDS at all costs.

And the Band Played On stands out as an essential text for understanding the people and the politics of the AIDS crisis. And even though it is a book full of answers one is left with even more questions after finishing. Perhaps the most prominent being “Why did it seem like nobody cared?” To Shilts and activists like Larry Kramer, the answer was clear: because those suffering were gay.

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