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AIDS @40: White House laughs as gays try to save themselves

Reagan administration ignored growing epidemic

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An APLA candlelight vigil in 1983. (Photo courtesy APLA Health)

Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final installment of this special series looking back at 40 years of AIDS. Visit washingtonblade.com for the previous installments.

Like so many others in California, lesbian feminist Ivy Bottini had high expectations for the federal government to finally intervene in the growing AIDS crisis after the first congressional committee hearing on the mysterious new disease, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman on April 13, 1982. There was very little press coverage of the hearing — held at the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center on Highland Ave. in Hollywood. But years later, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health recalled a quote reported by the Washington Blade: “I want to be especially blunt about the political aspects of Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS),” Waxman said. “This horrible disease afflicts members of one of the nation’s most stigmatized and discriminated-against minorities….There is no doubt in my mind that if the same disease had appeared among Americans of Norwegian descent, or among tennis players, rather than among gay males, the responses of the government and the medical community would have been different.”

The gay San Francisco newspaper The Sentinel published a very short brief on April 16 entitled “House Holds Cancer Hearings” about “the gay cancer.” The paper quoted an unnamed subcommittee staffer saying the CDC, “which is coordinating research on the baffling outbreak, ‘should not have to nickel and dime’ for funds.” The brief appeared next to a column written by gay nurse Bobbi Campbell, who wrote about going to The Shanti Project to get emotional support for his KS.

Bottini’s takeaway from the hearing was that no one really knew how AIDS was transmitted. She was upset. Her friend Ken Schnorr had died just before the hearing and Bottini had to explain to Ken’s distraught mother that he had not been abused at the hospital — the purple bruises on his body were KS lesions. After weeks of governmental inaction, Bottini called Dr. Joel Weisman, Schnorr’s gay doctor, to update the community at a town hall in Fiesta Hall in West Hollywood’s Plummer Park. Weisman had sent gay patients to Dr. Michael Gottlieb and was one of the co-authors on the first CDC public report about AIDS on June 5, 1981.  

Bottini later recalled how gay men often thanked her for saving their lives at that packed town hall. Bottini subsequently founded AIDS Network LA, to serve as a clearing house for collecting and disseminating information. But not everyone bought the science-based premise that AIDS was transmitted through bodily fluids — including Bottini’s friend Morris Kight, prompting a deep three-year rift. Nonetheless, groups offering gay men advice on how to have safe sex started emerging, as did peer groups forming for emotional, spiritual and healthcare support. The Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights, Houston’s Citizens for Human Equality and the new Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City published pamphlets and newsletters. 

Panic and denial were wafting in tandem through gay Los Angeles, too. In Oct. 1982, friends Nancy Cole Sawaya (an ally), Matt Redman, Ervin Munro, and Max Drew convened an emergency informational meeting at the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center on Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease (GRID, soon to be called AIDS) delivered by a representative from San Francisco’s Kaposi’s Sarcoma Foundation.  

“My friends and I were in New York in 1981, hearing stories among friends coming down with this mysterious disease. We realized that back home in L.A. there was no hotline, no medical care, and no one to turn to for emotional support,” Redman told The Advocate’s Chris Bull on July 17, 2001 for a story on the 20th anniversary of AIDS. “For some reason I wasn’t really scared. It was so early on that no one could predict what would happen.” 

That quickly changed when the friends realized there was no level of governmental help forthcoming. They set up a hotline in a closet space at the Center, found 12 volunteers and asked Weisman to train them on how to answer questions, reading off a one-page fact sheet. The idea was to “reduce fear” and eventually give out referrals to doctors and others willing to help.

The four also reached out to friends to raise money, netting $7,000 at a tony Christmas benefit to fund a new organization called AIDS Project Los Angeles. They set up a Board of Directors with Weisman and longtime checkbook activist attorney Diane Abbitt as co-chairs. They gaveled their first board meeting to order on Jan. 14, 1983 with five clients. The following month, APLA produced and distributed a brochure about AIDS in both English and Spanish.

Four months later, in May, APLA and other activists organized the first candlelight march in Los Angeles at the Federal Building in Westwood and in four other cities. The LA event was attended by more than 5,000 people demanding federal action. The KS/AIDS Foundation in San Francisco was led by people with AIDS carrying a banner that read “Fighting For Our Lives.” When the banner was unfurled at the National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference that June by activists presenting The Denver Principles, the crowd cried, with a 10-minute ovation.

“If the word ‘empowerment’ hadn’t yet been a part of the health care lexicon, it was about to be,” HIV/AIDS activist Mark S. King wrote in POZ. “The group took turns reading a document to the conference they had just created themselves, during hours sitting in a hospitality suite of the hotel. It was their Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence rolled into one. It would be known as The Denver Principles, and it began like this: ‘We condemn attempts to label us as ‘victims,’ which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally ‘patients,’ which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are ‘people with AIDS.’” 

While The Denver Principles were injecting self-empowerment into the growing movement of people with AIDS, the Reagan administration was infecting America through mass media association of homosexuality, AIDS and old myths of sexual perversion. Ronald Reagan was keenly aware of his anti-gay evangelical base, appointing Gary Bauer as a domestic policy adviser. Bauer was a close associate of James Dobson, president of the powerful Religious Right group Focus on the Family. Reagan also picked anti-abortion crusader C. Everett Koop as surgeon general — which turned into a mini-scandal when Koop agreed that sexually explicit AIDS education and gay-positive materials should be federally funded for schools. “You cannot be an efficient health officer with integrity if you let other things get in the way of health messages,” Koop told the Village Voice. Koop was slammed by the Moral Majority’s Rev. Jerry Falwell and other anti-gay evangelicals.

But perhaps one of the most egregious examples of the Reagan administration’s homophobic callousness toward people with AIDS came from the persistent laughter emanating from the podium of White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes. On Oct. 15, 1982, less than four weeks after Reps. Henry Waxman and Phillip Burton introduced a bill to allocate funds to the CDC for surveillance and the NIH for AIDS research, reporter Lester Kinsolving asked Speakes about the new disease called A.I.D.S.

KINSOLVING: Larry, does the president have any reaction to the announcement — the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?

SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?

KINSOLVING: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the president is aware of it?

SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)

KINSOLVING: You don’t have it. Well, I’m relieved to hear that, Larry. (Laughter.) I’m delighted.

SPEAKES: Do you?

KINSOLVING: No, I don’t….In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?

SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester. What –

KINSOLVING: Does the president, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?

SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any –

KINSOLVING: Nobody knows?

SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.

The exchange goes on like that. For another two years.

On World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, 2015, Vanity Fair debuted a 7:43 documentary directed and produced by Scott Calonico about that 1982 exchange between Kinsolving and Speakes. But Calonico also found audio of similar exchanges in 1983 and 1984 for his film, “When AIDS Was Funny.”

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History

LGBTQ historian launches virtual book and film club

Group meets daily via Facebook live stream

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Quarantini Club, gay news, Washington Blade
Eric Cervini (Screen capture via YouTube)

The Quarantini Club is a virtual LGBTQ book and film club meeting daily via Facebook live stream at 3 p.m. Participants read their assignments ahead of time while discussions are moderated by award-winning LGBTQ historian Dr. Eric Cervini.

Cervini was a Gates Scholar who graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of “The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America” and his videos have gained tens of thousands of views each week on Instagram.

His first video assignment was the AIDS activism documentary “How to Survive a Plague” and the following week he interviewed celebrated AIDS activist Peter Staley live on Instagram.

Visit ericcervini.com and quarantini.lgbt for more information.

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Arts & Entertainment

Blueboy Magazine to host classic porn screening in advance of relaunch

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Image via @Blueboy on Instagram

Nostalgic members of the gay community are sure to have fond memories of Blueboy Magazine, the iconic magazine known in its heyday as “the gay Playboy.”

Published from 1974 – 2007, the glossy lifestyle publication began with issues that featured soft-core male images alongside articles covering topics of LGBTQ interest; in the 90s, faced with competition from newer magazines, the format changed to focus more on overtly nude photos, discontinuing most of its non-porn content.

Fans of Blueboy will be thrilled to learn that there’s a nonprofit organization out there, the Blueboy Archives and Cultural Arts Foundation, dedicated “to the preservation and promotion” of the magazine’s archives and legacy; they’ll be even more thrilled to discover that the foundation has announced the relaunch of the classic queer mag later this year, in a contemporary version designed to “resonate the ‘golden era’ of the Blueboy 70s and 80s heyday,” introducing a whole new generation to an important slice of LGBTQ history.

In celebration of the relaunch, Blueboy Archives is planning to host “Blueboy Monday,” the Foundation’s very first meet-and-greet, featuring a special screening of Wakefield Poole’sclassic sexual and avant-garde film, “Bijou,” and billed as “an evening of making new friends and enjoying a classic film of early gay erotica serving sex-driven surrealism.”

Originally released during the summer of 1972, “Bijou” explores less binary sexuality, as a male construction worker enters a minimal – yet lush – realm where he is instructed to remove his clothes. What follows is a hypnotic, Freudian blend of voyeurism, fantasy and sexual exploration, packed with man-to-man action, accompanied with evocative classical music, and featuring an all-male cast that includes Ronnie Shark, Peter Fisk and Bill Cable. Screening at the event will be a beautifully restored version, taken from the original 16mm film negatives.

Blueboy Monday, which will take place at the legendary Faultline Bar in Los Angeles, is hosted by radio personality and columnist Miss Tiger (who is also the Foundation’s Executive Director) and TheeGhettoBlaster. During the evening, Miss Tiger will also discuss the work of the Foundation and moderate a short discussion of the film prior to movie showtime. Attendees are invited to stay throughout the evening for signature cocktails, meet-and-greet, prizes, silent auctions, and more.

The event happens on Monday, March 16, and if you’re in the LA area you can get tickets on Eventbrite.

As for the rebirth of Blueboy Magazine, that’s set to happen with a special debut December 2020 issue, which is available for pre-order now and will be shipped in late September. The Foundation says it has made the decision not to subsequently post the edition’s content online, “In order to evoke the nostalgic thrill of going to the newsstand and cherishing the latest copy.”

Which means you better pre-order now, because once the limited edition issue is sold out, they won’t be printing any more, either.

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History

200-year-old journal challenges notions about historical attitudes toward homosexuality

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Image courtesy BBC News.

The writings of a Yorkshire farmer in a 200-year-old journal have revealed that historical attitudes toward homosexuality may have been more sympathetic than previously suspected – at least in Great Britain.

BBC News reports that historians from Oxford University were taken aback by entries in the 1810 diary of Matthew Tomlinson, a widower in his 40s with “middling income” whose writings expressed comparatively open-minded views about same-sex attraction, including saying that he regarded it as being a “natural” human tendency.

The discovery challenges preconceived notions about how “ordinary people” viewed homosexuality, revealing that there was wider debate over the subject than previously assumed. Although more accepting views toward homosexuality are known to have been expressed privately by more educated, “philosophically radical” individuals of the era, and though Tomlinson was writing around the same time as that of another Yorkshire diarist, Anne Lister, who wrote coded details of her lesbian relationships into her own journal, the idea of a rural worker even having such opinions, let alone being willing to express them, is one which shifts the perspective on the way LGBTQ people have been viewed in history.

Oxford researcher Eamonn O’Keeffe, a doctoral student who has been examining the diary, told the BBC that the diary shows liberal ideas about homosexuality were “percolating through British society much earlier and more widely than we’d expect.”

“In this exciting new discovery,” he said, “we see a Yorkshire farmer arguing that homosexuality is innate and something that shouldn’t be punished by death.

“What’s striking is that he’s an ordinary guy, he’s not a member of the bohemian circles or an intellectual. It shows opinions of people in the past were not as monolithic as we might think – even though this was a time of persecution and intolerance towards same-sex relationships, here’s an ordinary person who is swimming against the current and sees what he reads in the paper and questions those assumptions.”

Tomlinson’s private diaries, which span the years 1806 – 1839, have been in Yorkshire’s Wakefield Library since the 1950s and are presumed to be part of an earlier acquisition of old books and documents. There are three surviving volumes, with another eight presumably lost.

The entries in question concern a scandal of the day in which a respected naval surgeon had been court-martialed and sentenced to death after being caught engaging in homosexual activity. In his journal, the farmer expressed his Tomlinson dissatisfaction with the decision, questioning the newspapers’ characterization of such behavior as “unnatural,” and arguing from a religious perspective that punishing someone for how they were created was implied that the Creator Himself was at fault.

In an entry from January 14, 1810, he wrote, “It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty should make a being with such a nature, or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that if that being whom he had formed, should at any time follow the dictates of that Nature, with which he was formed, he should be punished with death.”

The farmer went on to write that if there was an “inclination and propensity” for someone to be homosexual from an early age, “it must then be considered as natural, otherwise as a defect in nature – and if natural, or a defect in nature, it seems cruel to punish that defect with death”. Tomlinson also refers to being informed by others that homosexuality is apparent from an early age – indicating there had been discussions between the diarist and members of his social circle about the case, and that the subject matter was not unknown to them.

As forward-thinking as his opinions might seem, the 19th-century farmer still had plenty of room to evolve. He also made what O’Keefe calls the “extremely jarring” concession that if someone was homosexual “by choice, rather than by nature,” that he was willing to consider punishment as an acceptable option – though he favored the “more moderate” approach of castrating the offender, rather than sentencing them to death by hanging.

Still, O’Keefe says the discovery has both “enriched and complicated” our understanding of public opinion in the pre-Victorian era.

The journal has drawn international interest from historians, such as LGBTQ history expert Rictor Norton, who said, “It is extraordinary to find an ordinary, casual observer in 1810 seriously considering the possibility that sexuality is innate and making arguments for decriminalization.”

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