To the editor:
It seems inconceivable that this month marks the 31st "anniversary" of the official beginning of the global AIDS pandemic.
I remember the first story in the New York Times about a strange form of "gay cancer" emerging in homosexual men in New York City. I remember my seemingly healthy roommate in Laguna Beach, Calif., coming home from work, a few weeks after the New York Times story ran, complaining of the flu and being dead 48 days later. He drowned in his own lung fluids at the age of 23, from what quickly became known in the media as "gay pneumonia".
Within weeks, the new illness was dubbed "GRIDS" — Gay Related Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome. As a result, nobody outside of public health paid much attention. I mean, who cared about aggressive and rare cancers and pneumonias killing a bunch of queers in New York City, San Francisco and southern California, right?
The problem was, it quickly became clear to public health experts, that there was nothing exclusively gay about "GRIDS." That realization resulted in the name being changed to AIDS — Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
In New York City men, women, and children began presenting with the same rare pneumonia, known as pneumocystis carinii, that killed my roommate. None were gay; some were injection drug users, others were their sex partners, and the children were just their unlucky offspring. People who had received blood transfusions in the late 1970s and early 1980s began presenting with the symptoms of GRIDS, as did people with hemophilia. Remember young Ryan White?
To public health professionals that made clear some new pathogen that was blood borne was loose on the landscape.
But still, nobody paid attention. It was, after all, a "gay disease."
As the death toll mounted and the evidence grew in the early 1980s that we were dealing with a new blood borne pathogen, one brave doctor from the Centers for Disease Control, Don Francis, advocated for the universal screening of the blood supply for Hepatitis B. He recognized that, whatever the new pathogen was, it was spreading in ways and in populations who'd long been at risk of infection with Hep-B. But nobody, not the Reagan administration, the Red Cross, nor private, for-profit blood banks listened.
In fact, when Don Francis angrily asked a meeting of the leaders of the national blood banking industry in San Francisco, "How many people have to die?" before they would do something, he was severely reprimanded by his superiors at the CDC in Atlanta.
Francis's advocating for mandatory, universal, screening of the blood supply for Hep-B made such news that President Ronald Reagan intervened and publicly said that acceding to Dr. Francis's demand would amount to "... Unnecessary governmental interference in the private sector." By the time Ronald Reagan actually said the word AIDS in public in 1986, more Americans were dead or dying than had died in Vietnam.
I share this history now because, as a 50-something-year-old gay man, as much progress as I wanted to believe our society had made toward putting sound public health policies ahead of politics, and accepting gay men and lesbians as equal members of our social mosaic, I have realized that not much genuine progress has been made on either front.
All one need do to fully grasp that reality is listen to the stump speeches of the vast majority of candidates currently running for office under the banner of the Republican Party.