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 was uncovering.
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 like PCP.
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 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 forums.
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 early years.
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

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