Reprinted from Magnus Magazine, Summer 2001
AIDS in the Early Eighties
Fear, propaganda, greed and homophobia
By Michael Bellefountaine
“People often ask, "If AIDS drugs are what is
killing people today, what was killing them before these pills were
on the market, or before HIV was detectable through testing?"
In a recent Sacramento News and Review article, “The HIV Disbelievers,"
about people who question HIV as the sole cause of AIDS, Gary Myerscough,
an ACT UP San Francisco critic, stated, "But in 1981...the
Bay Area Reporter (B.A.R.) -- a gay weekly in San Francisco
-- was publishing two to three pages of obituaries per week."
It seemed that this assertion was accepted as fact by the reporter
and was being promoted as truth by the media.
Indeed, many people often ask AIDS dissidents, "If AIDS drugs
are what is killing people today, what was killing them before these
pills were on the market, or before HIV was detectable through testing?"
In order to answer this question I felt it was important to find
out exactly when AIDS obituaries started appearing in the gay press,
how many there were, and whether there were any peaks or trends
that could be traced. This prompted a group of ACT UP San Francisco
members to go to the library and begin an extensive search of the
Bay Area Reporter for all references to AIDS, starting in January
1979 and ending in December 1984, the year the U.S. government announced
that HIV was "the probable cause of AIDS." Not long into
the research I realized that few, if any, of the generally accepted
facts about AIDS in the early eighties were reflected in what I
Setting the Stage for HIV
In the late 1970s, San Francisco had the highest rates of venereal
disease (VD) in its history and in the country. In 1980, the federal
government began a program to eradicate VD by focusing on San Francisco
in general, and its sexually active gay male population specifically.
The Department of Public Health (DPH) targeted the heavily gay neighborhoods
of the Castro, the Polk and the Tenderloin with VD alerts as well
as a VD van that circled these areas to test people on street corners
for gonorrhea, syphilis, parasites and other bugs. This focus on
eradicating VD was also primarily aimed at a certain subset of gay
men who "lived in the fast lane." These men were more
inclined to use a wide variety of recreational drugs, have multiple
sex partners, and take antibiotics as preventive medicine for potential
VD infections. It was men from this group who would first become
sick with rare illnesses.
As gays and lesbians fought for acceptability in the 1970s, professional
gays were emboldened to come out of the closet. Gay teachers, lawyers
and doctors all formed professional associations. It was these early
doctor groups that first promoted the notion that gays had "special
health needs," as opposed to the simple need for Queer-sensitive
health care providers.
Around this time, two articles appeared emphasizing this point in
the Annals of Internal Medicine; "STDs and Traumatic Problems
in Homosexual Men" and "The Clinical Approach to the Homosexual
Patient." The message communicated by these medical journal
articles was that gay men had special needs, especially when it
came to stopping the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
and providing psychiatric and drug abuse counseling. This paved
the way for a mind-set that would readily accept the gay-specific,
deadly STD named HIV. In fact, an article in the June 17, 1980,
B.A.R. entitled "Gay Men Guilty, 50 Years of Public Health
Down the Drain" stated that gay sex led to exotic ills and
was so dirty it was reversing all public health benefits since the
inception of the sewer!
The first articles announcing new diseases in gay men began to appear
in the press in June 1981. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article
on June 4, 1981, entitled "U.S. CDC Studies Pneumonia That
Strikes Gay Men." On July 2, 1981, the B.A.R. ran an article
"Gay Men's Pneumonia" and followed it up on July 16, 1981,
with another story, "Gay Men and KS."
None of these articles gave a clue to the chaos that was to come.
In fact, both B.A.R. articles appeared on page 34 of the newspaper
and are no more than a few paragraphs long. Interestingly, they
are included in the Leather News section of the paper, indicating
they would be of interest to a smaller group within the general
gay population who read the B.A.R.
It is also important to note that, contrary to Myers-cough's claim,
the B.A.R. did not run pages of obituaries in 1981. The first people
with Kaposi's sarcoma (KS) and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP)
had not died, they had only been diagnosed. It was not that people
were dying and no one knew why; it was that certain people for some
reason developed KS and PCP and no one knew why -- a very big difference.
By September 1981 the eighteenth case of KS was diagnosed in San
Francisco. By the end of 1981, 30 articles, editorials or letters
on VD or AIDS had appeared in the B.A.R.
Treatment of Kaposi's sarcoma at the time consisted of weekly doses
of chemotherapy, and from the very beginning there were questions
about the appropriate dose. In November 1982, Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien
of the New York University Medical Center told an audience at the
University of California San Francisco, "I am no proponent
of chemotherapy. We can cure the tumor but we are killing the patient."
("Anal Sex Latest Culprit, AIDS Topic of Local Conference,"
B.A.R., November 1982.)
At this time a group of concerned citizens formed an organization
called the Committee to Study the Cumulative Effects of Poppers,
to bring attention to the use and effects of amyl-, butyl- and propyl-nitrites.
With veteran activist Hank Wilson at the helm, this group demanded
an investigation into the production, distribution, legality and
long-term health effects of poppers. "The Year of the Little
Brown Bottle" was the first B.A.R. editorial of 1982, and it
called attention to popper use. Additionally, the City held hearings
in early 1982 on poppers and their distribution. Poppers were sold
as "room deodorizers" and later as video head cleaner,
and city officials felt they had little ability to stop their production
or sale. They did, however, issue a warning about the dangers of
using poppers as a recreational drug.
The gay community seemed willing to accept that long-term recreational
drug and alcohol abuse would lead to immune suppression. Both Arthur
Evans and Bobbi Campbell wrote letters bemoaning the use of poppers.
In a December 10, 1981, New England Journal of Medicine editorial
on causes of gay pneumonia and cancer, Dr. D.T. Durak from Duke
Medical Center stated, "So-called recreational drugs are one
possibility. The leading candidates are the nitrites." In June
the British journal The Lancet also published a study on the immune
suppressive effects of poppers. One of the big questions at the
time was what was the link between KS and PCP. Before 1982 the two
had not been linked in any way, and the only way they seemed connected
was in gay men. Somehow gay sexual practices became the focus of
this link as opposed to the common factor of drug abuse. It would
make sense that nitrites inhaled through the nose would cause both
KS on the face and in the lungs, as well as a pulmonary problem
Forget AIDS Fraud: Fund All! Fund Now!
As news reports of illnesses and deaths began to spread, the requests
for research funding began. By May 1982 San Francisco budgeted over
$2 million for AIDS research. This funding was in addition to $2
million budgeted by the DPH for AIDS. Looking back, it is interesting
to note that there were two camps with opposite beliefs on spending
priorities. One group demanded accountability and oversight to avoid
fraud, overlap, irrelevance and lack of progress. Amazingly, the
other group had a "Fund all! Fund now!" mentality.
This view was expressed in a May 12, 1983, B.A.R. editorial that
stated, "The next question...and a touchy one...is should we
care where [AIDS funding] goes or how it's spent or who's in charge
of it? What with the trillions the various levels of government
have pitched away since 1940, who is to quibble over a few thousand
here and a few thousand there... It's an emergency and there isn't
time to ask questions, to check out money seekers. No time to scrutinize
the proposals -- to find out if the people involved are legit, if
the projects are relevant, if there is any overlapping, or if there
is room for fraud or embezzlement."
By 1983 the medical associations were adept at manipulating the
media. They would promote forums that consisted of two parts: The
first half would alarm gay men about a problem like AIDS, and the
second half would tell them how to relieve their anxieties by funding
solutions to the problem. Researchers and public health officials
would then use the gay media to both promote and report on these
During this period, the B.A.R. began to prominently feature a "Victim
of the Week" profiling persons with AIDS (PWAs), both alive
and dead, to let gay people know that these KS sufferers were just
like them. This culminated in the coverage of a KS patient who had
committed suicide. The B.A.R. splashed it across the front page
and went so far as to run the desperate person's suicide note.
Early 1983 also saw people express concern about the overdosing
of KS patients with chemotherapy and question whether KS was a cancer
caused by a virus. Also, the New England Journal of Medicine printed
articles exploring the link between AIDS and parasites.
Shifting Gears to AIDS Terror
As these questions were being raised, the B.A.R. launched an ultra-sensationalistic
campaign on March 17, 1983, with an opinion piece by editor Paul
Lorch entitled "Shifting Gears." Lorch informed readers
of a new, concerted effort by the newspaper to scare gay men about
AIDS. "The time has come for us to start scaring the shit out
of ourselves. The Grim Reaper is no longer simply hovering over
Laguna Honda Hospital. He is in our midst, and each day he cuts
a wider swath," Lorch warned.
Lorch's inflammatory editorial and the B.A.R.'s new terror policy
of reporting on the gay health panic led to the first time that
people with AIDS organized. Over twenty PWAs wrote a letter opposing
the B.A.R.'s new frighteningly sensationalistic approach to AIDS,
and pointing out the fact that the paper's publisher, Bob Ross,
happened to also be the treasurer of the KS Foundation. These PWAs
expressed concern that, given this apparent conflict of interest,
Ross' paper would be less concerned with reporting facts and more
involved with sensationalizing the new disease syndrome.
"It seems to us that the publisher and editor have been less
than responsible in representing the theories and data surrounding
AIDS...We find that many are distressed that this sensational approach
to reporting only fuels the fires of fear, guilt and homophobia
and adds to the everyday stresses patients must face in dealing
with this illness," they wrote in their letter.
Lorch responded with an unbelievably cruel letter that he sent to
the PWAs but did not publish in the B.A.R. However, the San Francisco
Sentinel did run a story about the sensationalism of AIDS coverage
in the B.A.R. and published both the letter from the PWAs and the
response from Lorch. By May 1983 the San Francisco KS Foundation,
with Ross as treasurer, became a national organization.
As the fear grew so did the discrimination against PWAs. In the
gay neighborhoods, PWAs were asked to leave restaurants and thrown
out of their homes. On February 9, 1983, an ambulance driver in
the Castro refused to transport a gay businessman to the hospital
who was suffering from acute appendicitis. Soon it became clear
that anti-AIDS fear and prejudice flowed over to anti-gay discrimination.
People who were known to have KS or PCP were chased out of bars
and bathhouses. Some gay men even went so far as to lie about and
retaliate against others by informing bar owners that certain patrons
had AIDS. In a May 26, 1983, letter to the B.A.R. Fred Heracomb,
owner of the Catacombs bathhouse wrote, "Last week's letter
by John Tallerino stated that two men with AIDS knowingly pursue
an active sexual life and can be found at the Cauldron or Catacombs
on any given night. After reading his letter I got his telephone
number and called him. I let John know that I am just as concerned
as he about the threat this poses to all of us. I asked John to
give me the names of these men so I could bar them from the Catacombs.
John then said that he did not know for sure that these men had
AIDS, nor was he sure that they go to the Catacombs and based his
letter on hearsay only."
Amidst the growing hysteria of 1983, an article from the Medical
World News was released stating that the CDC had established from
animal research that nitrites could not be responsible for AIDS.
This put an end to the argument of drug causation, and the gay community
embraced the viral cause of AIDS and all the discrimination that
went along with it.
Bathhouse and Blood Bank Blues
It was in the beginning of 1983 that arguments to close the bathhouses
began in earnest. Community groups demanded that owners put up AIDS
warnings even though no one knew what was causing the syndrome.
There were concerns that visitors to Gay Pride in 1983 would come
to San Francisco, get infected, and return home to spread AIDS.
Additionally, the Democratic National Convention was to be held
in San Francisco in 1984, and the city needed to be cleaned up.
At the same time, blood banks began to express concern about the
safety of the nation's blood supply. Suddenly, in 1983, the Hemophiliac
Foundation of America stopped accepting blood from gay men, Haitians
and intravenous drug users. Other blood banks followed suit, refusing
donations from sexually active gays, or from all gays. After some
lobbying, local blood banks provided a self-screening questionnaire
that they handed out to potential donors. By April 1983 the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration warned blood banks against accepting
donations from all homosexual men.
The first AIDS memorial candlelight march was held in May 1983.
It was well attended, and for a very good reason -- all of the city's
gay bars and businesses agreed to close for a few hours that night.
Oddly enough, in the May 5, 1983, B.A.R., reporter Wayne April stated,
"Most of the marchers had not seen actual victims of AIDS,
but got their first chance when five patients spoke to an overflow
crowd." That a B.A.R. reporter would so readily admit that
no one in the gay community knew people with AIDS as late as 1983
flies in the face of what most people believe happened during these
Finally, in April 1984, HTLV-3 (the precursor to HIV) was announced
and an antibody test was patented. Symptoms of AIDS became irrelevant
as the medical establishment no longer looked at who was sick, but
now searched for who was "infected."
Despite all the hysteria, the cumulative (all time) total for AIDS
cases reported by the B.A.R. in June 1983 were very low:
National AIDS Cases: 1,450
San Francisco AIDS Cases: 249
National AIDS Deaths: 558
San Francisco AIDS Deaths: 72
Had doctors, researchers, gay leaders and the press been skeptical
about the cause of AIDS and rational in the face of fear, the non-contagious
reasons for illness could have been addressed and an atmosphere
of anti-gay violence would have been avoided.
Michael Bellefountaine has been a member of ACT UP for over a decade.
He can be reached at ACT UP at 415-864-6686 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org