And The Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic
By Randy Shilts
St. Martins Press, New York
Marginalized groups of people die while the world does nothing, despite key players being able to stop the slaughter. Randy Shilts states he wrote And The Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic so “…it will never happen again, to any people, anywhere”. “Never again” was said after the holocaust in Europe and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic can be seen as another holocaust. While an exhaustively researched and minutely detailed description of events that occurred in a very specific time and place, the overarching issues this book reveals are universal and always relevant. It forces us to contemplate: What would I do? What is the impact of our deep – seated prejudices? How do we treat the “other”? And how do we care for those that society has disenfranchised – whether they were Jews in Europe in the 1930’s, American gay men in the 1980’s or undocumented aliens today?
And the Band Played On is a compelling account of the first five years of the AIDS epidemic. Shilts takes us on a journey, starting with an unknown disease in Africa, to the first CDC case report of unusual pneumonia appearing in young gay men, and goes through to the revelation that Rock Hudson died of AIDS, which brought the awareness of the disease into mainstream America. The breadth of research is staggering, covering the growing controversy within the gay community; the scientists who are looking for the cause while competing for fame; the politicians more worried about popularity than people dying; and the impact of the conservative fiscal policies of Ronald Reagan, whose mission to cut ‘big government’ included the CDC and other government health facilities, just when they needed to engage one of the biggest pubic health threat of the century. Shilts delineates the complex response to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic that was impacted by the depth of prejudice against gays and other marginalized people. He was a journalist, and wrote this book to catalogue the response, or lack of it, that caused a huge number of deaths and allowed the virus to spread virtually unchecked for years. By utilizing the Freedom of Information Act to research high level government memos and convincing key actors to allow him access to their intimate conversations, Shilts reveals the depth of culpability that many people bear for not stopping this epidemic while there was time.
His premise is that, since the virus first appeared in groups the mainstream culture wanted to ignore (gay men, IV drug users and their families), scientists, doctors and politicians were blinded by their own prejudice and so failed to halt the spread of AIDS. Shilts keeps the thread of this thesis going as he weaves multiple story lines throughout the book. He compels you to turn the page to find out why young gay men were dying of a strange new syndrome that no one understood; to discover how the scientists will find the cause while fighting each other for the Nobel prize; to see if the government will ever stop lying and give the CDC enough research money. It is painful to see the shortsightedness of the political officials and the venality of the blood bank operators and the owners of the gay bathhouses, who put their own business interests over people’s lives. At the same time, there are real heroes in this story: the public health officials who worked night and day; the gay activists who fought for recognition and funding; the patients themselves, who broke through enormous stigma to help others; and even some conservative politicians who eventually put the public’s health above their own personal beliefs.
Woven throughout is the gay movement’s growing awareness of the crisis and realization that they were being left alone to die. This created a fight to change both external attitudes and their self-identity as a community. A critical moment is chronicled, when a community made radical changes in an extremely short period of time. Shilts decries the avoidance and infighting that occurred in the gay community when faced with the appearance of AIDS. But a huge shift in values and behaviors happened here. This is a critical lesson of this book.
Shilts forces us to question the social and political milieu this medical crisis arose within, which prevented any unified response for the first five years of it’s appearance. The book stands as an important text now, 30 years after these events occurred, because it always takes enormous energy and commitment to see our own biases and blind spots. For anyone interested in public health, the important questions that arise from reading it are: Who is the “other” now? Do I have the vision and courage to respond to the next crisis, no matter where it arises? Given these questions, this book becomes a contemporary cautionary tale.
Randy Shilts was the first openly gay journalist to work for a mainstream newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote unceasingly about the new disease that was devastating the gay community. He was an outspoken and controversial figure. Reportedly, he didn’t learn his own diagnosis until the book was finished, as he didn’t want to influence his objectivity. He was HIV positive and died of AIDS complications in 1994 (Jenifer Warren and Richard Paddock, 1994).
This book was important in it’s own time, for the breadth of perspective and for the truth it revealed. It is just as important now. Shilts is trying to warn us, by chronicling the ways in which AIDS was ignored and allowed to spread, to have the humility not to repeat history with the next disease that appears among the disenfranchised. He makes the point that despite apparent differences, we are all human beings, intimately connected to each other. He leaves us to contemplate how to create a world where there is no “other”.
Jenifer Warren and Richard Paddock. (1994, February 18). Randy Shilts, Chronicler of AIDS Epidemic, Dies at 42; Journalism: Author of “And the Band Played On’ is credited with awakening nation to the health crisis. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from www.aegis.com/news/lt/1994/lt940208.html