“Later, everybody agreed the baths should have been closed sooner; they agreed health education should have been more direct and more timely. And everybody also agreed blood banks should have tested blood sooner, and that a search for the AIDS virus should have been started sooner, and that scientists should have laid aside their petty intrigues. Everybody subsequently agreed that the news media should have offered better coverage of the epidemic much earlier, and that the federal government should have done much, much more. By the time everyone agreed to all this, however, it was too late.
Instead people died. Tens of thousands of them.”
Welcome Back, my friends,
Today, December 1st, is World AIDS Day. I know it sounds like a different topic from what I usually propose to you, but it isn’t.
Talking about AIDS, in the average reader, generates a reaction not different from talking about Nagorno-Karabakh: they think of a distant place where people die for apparently incomprehensible reasons, or at worst, for “barbaric” conduct. Just as I have proposed to talk about those distant places, I will also tell you about this place which, I admit with shame, until recently was also far away for my range.
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome has killed over 25 million people since 1981, becoming one of the most destructive epidemics in the whole history of mankind. Although access to antiretroviral therapies and drugs has recently improved, in many regions of the world the AIDS epidemic claimed about 3.1 million victims in 2005 (estimates range from 2.9 to 3.3 million), more than half of whom (570,000) were children. This year the new infections amount to one million and seven hundred thousand and the deaths to 690,000.
Since 1988, the World Health Organization has set this day to raise awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of the HIV virus, and to remember those who have died from the disease. Until 1985, however, the epidemic moved invisibly and uncontrollably throughout the world.
Why? Mainly because it struck the “pariahs”: in the West, mainly Homosexuals and Drug Addicts, and imagine then what could be the interest in its spread in what were the so-called “Third World” countries, where the disease originated, until things have reached abnormal proportions. Just like when we hear about tragic events in distant countries, those who die and suffer become a distant entity, and often we who deal with Geopolitics treat all this as a game of chess, in which necessarily “pieces” are lost.
As for me, I found myself face to face with this part of Western history, which we carefully closed in a drawer, about a year and a half ago, when I was asked for help for a project of a completely different nature, specifically, psychology. When I was asked to reconstruct the history of the first years of the pandemic, I was thrilled by the scarce amount of information available, even in specialized magazines. And it is by asking myself the reason for this lack of reporting that I “met” Randy Shilts.
I say “met”, because, although Shilts died when I was a child, his book “And the Band Played On”, which tells those first years shrouded in mystery is not just a historical account, but is the Echo of hundreds of voices that come to us from a not too distant past, and that we have forgotten. Surely it is thanks to his writing style (to understand, we could compare it to that of Truman Capote or, more recently, to that of Svetlana Aleksevic), but there is more than this: Shilts, a participant in the Homosexual Liberation Movement (as it was called then) since the University, he is personally involved in the AIDS pandemic, and makes us live together with him and his contemporaries, that part of history, through a choral story “as beautiful and terrible as an army lined up in battle”, in the words of Umberto Eco.
Reading the book, you get the feeling that you are participating in those moments, and, if you take into account that they are not fictional stories but first-rate investigative journalism (except for some parts added after his death by his publisher, which I consider a real stab in the back, but if you have read, or will read the book, you will immediately realize what they are), we face an extraordinary testimony. The journalist of the San Francisco Chronicle accompanies us in that glimpse of history, shows us the pinnacle of the struggle for civil rights of homosexuals and his fall at the hands of a mysterious disease, shows us the suffering of those who could not do anything but succumb , the courage of those who have spent themselves with every cell of their body to find a solution, the greed of the business of paid sex, the unawareness of the victims, the lack of action of the Reagan Presidency and the hatred towards those, like him, which demanded a change in homosexual lifestyle and was accused of being “fascists”, the righteousness of some unlikely politicians (like the Mormon Senator Orrin Hatch) and the contempt of those who wanted to take advantage of the situation.
But above all, it shows us the indifference, guilty or not, of the society of the time (in this specific case American, but in other countries the situation was identical if not worse), while few fought against the tide: they were doctors, clinicians, researchers, politicians, activists, bureaucrats, writers and ordinary citizens. And a reporter from the Chronicle, who fought with them and got their words and deeds out to us.
I can only answer that I tried to tell the truth and, if not be objective, at least be fair; history is not served when reporters prize trepidation and propriety over the robust journalistic duty to tell the whole story.
(Randy Shilts, from an interview on Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1994)
Reading his writings, for me was not just a lesson in journalism, or a look into a period of recent history that is very little covered, but a lesson in humanity: he tells us about a society that does not intend to change its lifestyle, even in the face of the suffering and death of many, of politicians and journalists who try to take advantage of the situation to gain approval or popularity, of scientists and doctors who do not give up their academic vanity.
But also that there have been, and still are, people willing to fight for what is right, without means, without attention and without support against an invisible and lethal enemy. Reading his writings during this pandemic, gave me the strength to face it in my own way, despite watching everyday the same wrong, selfish, and demagogic behaviors repeated in front of my eyes: another story of cowardice and courage.
This short piece whould be an encouragement not to give up, to make sure that the legacy of men like Randall Martin Shilts is not forgotten after the storm has passed, and after their life has died out, perhaps deepening the subject soon.
Come out for Shilts, once again, not with your sexuality, but whit your braveness.
Thank You, Randy.
Is the voice of reason
Against the howling mob,
Is the pride of purpose
In the unrewarding job…
(Rush, “Nobody’s Hero“, from Counterparts 1993)