National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 52: The Valley of the Shadow Of Death and Madness

Gay men during the “AIDS Dark Age” (1981-1996) were frightened out of their minds, especially in the first years of its outbreak when so little was known about it, or about who or how many among the still symptom-free harbored the deadly virus.

Behaviors under these conditions varied radically, from the caring to the insane.

Voluntary caregivers provided extraordinary support for their stricken fellow homosexuals, friends and strangers alike, so many alienated from family and former friends and otherwise alone, as documented in David Weissman’s new film, “We Were Here.”

Strident activists took to the streets. Playwright Larry Kramer was first to leap to his political feet when the public reports started coming out about the new, mysterious “gay cancer” in July 1981.

Then there was the madness, as journalist Randy Shilts, destined to die of AIDS in 1994, witnessed first hand and reported in his “And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic 1980-1985” (1987).

That 630-page book is the most thorough testament to the first years of AIDS, a critically important chronicle of the professional journalist’s “who, what, where, when and how” of what happened. Shilts was an openly gay reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

His book ran afoul of the gay establishment at the time, as it was deemed to cast too negative a light on the gay community. But it was made into a powerful, Emmy Award-winning HBO documentary film in 1993 though still, as good as that film was, it didn’t begin to reach the depth and gritty detail of the book.

Most shocking is the book’s description of the unfathomable resistance to standard public health measures, designed to prevent the virus from spreading, that came from leaders of gay establishment, caught in the grip of their radical hedonism, in those early years of the epidemic.

Sadly, many leaders of gay organizations were people with significant vested financial interests in the promiscuous sex of the urban gay subculture. They were owners of bars (many with sexually-active “dark rooms” in the rear), porn bookstores (many with “glory hole”-equipped peep show compartments in the back), sex clubs and bathhouses.

It was suspected very early that these kinds of establishments were major points of transmission of the virus, and there developed a pitched battle between public health officials and those in the gay community, either with financial interests or deeply intrenched from a decade’s worth of collective, clinical addiction to frequent and impersonal sex, who fought to keep these places open and unchanged.

Clinical addiction to sex in the face of AIDS became hysterical insanity.

Three years into the epidemic, when some gay leaders began realizing that measures like closing the bathhouses were required to save lives, an editorial entitled “Killing the Movement” appeared in the April 4, 1984 edition of the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco. It equated closing the bathhouses with “killing off” the gay liberation movement, saying the move spelled “the annihilation of gay life.” The paper publicized a “traitor’s list” of the 16 gay leaders who called for the bathhouse closings.

As Shilts wrote, “A homosexual McCarthyism descended on the gay community…McCarthy felt he could proscribe all the political views a true American should have; the Bay Area Reporter and its like-minded gay leaders now felt they could order all homosexuals to think exactly as they did or be branded unhomosexual traitors.”

Under such a logic, Shilts added, “The heroes had become the bathhouse owners, who had assured doctors at the AIDS Clinic that bathhouses were fine because ‘we both make our money off’ the people who were killing themselves there.'”

Even more disturbing, he said, “was the fact that there was no one in the gay community who would censure this verbal terrorism. Not one gay politico, writer, or thinker would step forward and say, simply, ‘This is madness.’ Insanity triumphed because sane people were silent.”

It’s hard to know which was more outrageous: fanatical resistance to preventing the spread of the deadly virus, or the equation gay liberation with unprotected bathhouse sex.

It took a gay activist from the pre-Stonewall era to force the issue on closing the baths. In 1984, Larry Littlejohn, a founder of the Society of Individual Rights (SIR), moved to place a referendum on the ballot to ban sexual activity in the San Francisco’s 15 bathhouses. Threatening to “out” the issue like this forced city and gay leaders to act, neither wanting it on the ballot, and the bathhouses were soon closed. Other U.S. cities quickly followed suit.

The same madness persisted among those gay leaders who a year later resisted testing for the virus, once an effective test was finally devised.

The plague was extended for years longer than it might have, at the cost of scores of thousands of lives, by the combination of government inaction and astonishing insanity in the gay establishment.

To be continued.