This was the headline, over ten years ago now, in the Los Angeles Times.
Yesterday I bought a DVD of the HBO film based on Shilts’ book. Despite having seen it in theatres when it was first released, and on television again since that time, I was brought to tears several times as I watched it last night – tears of sad memories, as the AIDS epidemic began its largely unnoticed Pac Man-like path of destruction through the United States, Canada and other western nations; of anger as I recalled the recently-departed Ronald Reagan never even mentioned AIDS in a policy speech during most of his two terms in office; tears for lives lost among many of my friends at a time when I, too, living with the virus could have easily been among the dead; tears of rage at how little has changed, despite medical advances, as Africa and other developing parts of the world pay a needlessly heavy price with AIDS deaths while western pharmaceutical giants quibble over patents for their medications – not unlike Robert Gallo’s unconscionable fight to lay Nobel Prize-seeking claim to HIV.
The book, and the film, are important historical documents – exposing the hypocrisy of the blood products industry, of government bureaucrats in charge of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, of gay community ‘leaders’ who actively worked head-to-head against public health agencies trying to track the spread of the epidemic in its early stages.
As I watched the film again I was reminded of the mystery of my survival, beyond one activist’s poignant warning against letting him died of ‘red tape’.
Randy Shilts was 42 when he died. He had already accomplished a rich life’s work as a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle, writing a biography of the city’s martyred first openly gay city councillor, Harvey Milk, as well as an account of gays in the military “Conduct Unbecoming”. Yet he, like so many others with AIDS, died far too young and unnecessarily.