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Chronicling the end of the world

Three decades ago, a journalist wrote a best-selling book that would force America to take action against AIDS. Dominic Brookes reports.

Widely considered to be the seminal account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On reveals America’s initial lack of urgency to the emerging threat of an unknown disease — a disease that would go on to kill 35 million people worldwide. Published 30 years ago, And the Band Played On is an indictment of indifference and denial. “The bitter truth was that AIDS did not just happen to America — it was allowed to happen,” writes author Randy Shilts.   

Shilts was an openly gay, investigative reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle and one of the first in America to write about AIDS. “With a passion I have rarely seen equalled,” recalled colleague Susan Sward. “Randy pushed, wheedled and cajoled until his AIDS stories made their way from the back pages to the front page.”

Before long, there would be no need for Shilts to push his editor into prominently placing stories about AIDS. When movie star Rock Hudson died in the summer of 1985 of an AIDS-related illness, the disease was making front-page headlines around the world.

Until Hudson’s death, AIDS “had seemed a comfortably distant threat to most of those who had heard of it before, the misfortune of people who fit into the rather distinct classes of outcasts and social pariahs,” wrote Shilts. “But suddenly, when a movie star was diagnosed with the disease, the AIDS epidemic became more palpable and the threat loomed everywhere.”

Along with New York and Los Angeles, San Francisco was one of the epidemic’s epicentres, affording Shilts an unenviable vantage point from which to view the horrors unfolding. Describing the incentive to write the book, Shilts said: “Any good reporter could have done this story, but I think the reason I did it, and no one else did, is because I am gay. It was happening to people I cared about and loved.”

The book’s title — And the Band Played On — was Shilts’s way of saying “business as usual”. In other words, mainstream society looked the other way while gay men dropped like flies. “Nearly five years passed before all these institutions — medicine, public health, the federal and private scientific research establishments, the mass media, and the gay community’s leadership — mobilised the way they should in a time of threat,” wrote Shilts. “The story is a drama of national failure, played out against a backdrop of needless death.”

Advocate and blogger Mark S. King recalls reading And the Band Played On for the first time. “I remember how heavy it felt in my hands,” said King. “Over 650 pages of science and grief and infighting and death. The book chronicled the end of the world. It detailed the beginning of the plague that — at the very moment I was reading the book — was killing my closest friends.” For King, the book was a validation. “Someone had finally called out a crisis that had existed under the radar for far too long. And thank God, everyone was reading it.”

However, reaction from the gay community was mixed. As well as targeting government inaction, bureaucratic incompetence and institutional homophobia, Shilts also placed blame for the AIDS epidemic on the gay hedonistic lifestyle (Shilts had previously provoked ire by publically endorsing the closure of San Francisco’s gay bathhouses). His views created a community backlash, with Shilts dismissed as a traitor to his own kind. When visiting the Castro district, he would be spat upon and openly booed.

Despite the criticism, And the Band Played On became an acclaimed bestseller and made an international celebrity out of its author. It was while promoting the book in Australia in 1988 that Shilts predicted that AIDS in the Western world would, one day, “be as manageable as diabetes”. He would not live to see his words become a reality.

Shilts was diagnosed HIV-positive the day he finished And the Band Played On. “I literally pulled the last page out of the typewriter and went to the doctor,” Shilts recalled. “I said, ‘OK, now you can test me.’ He said, ‘I already have.’” Randy Shilts eventually died from complications of AIDS in 1994; he was 42. Shortly before his death, Shilts described AIDS as “character building”. “It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity,” he said. “Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.”

Shilts was eulogised by AIDS activists Cleve Jones and Larry Kramer. “Randy’s contribution was so crucial,” said Jones. “He broke through society’s denial and was absolutely critical to communicating the reality of AIDS.” Larry Kramer said of Shilts: “He probably did more to educate the world about AIDS than any single person.”

Three decades on from publication And the Band Played On remains in print and its author remembered as a fearless objector. “[The book] was the loudest cry of protest from a gay man at what the national government was doing to its own citizens,” said Shilts’s friend, author and journalist, Frank Robinson. “For someone to point the finger at the government and say they were partners in genocide took a hell of a lot of courage.” 

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