How Ronald Reagan Caused the AIDS Epidemic

January 01, 1993  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Heterodoxy  ·  Aids

While the medical community consensus has long been that AIDS is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, there is now definitive proof this is wrong. As the recent television docudrama And the Band Played On revealed, the real cause of the AIDS epidemic was the Reagan Administration.

And the Band Played On is currently airing on HBO, the network that picked up the option on Randy Shilts’s best-selling book of the same name after NBC dropped it in the wake of its Rock Hudson movie which bombed in the ratings. And the Band Played on should suffer no such fate. It is a slick piece of work, well-acted and emotion-stirring. It was also clearly a love of labor for many of the actors and the actresses, some of whom are self-declared homosexuals while others are widely considered to be. Finally, Shilts provided good material with which to work.

In other words, this is a work worthy of Oliver Stone.

In some respects, albeit perhaps only accidentally, the movie was more accurate than Shilts’s book. That which probably propelled it onto the bestseller list was the story of Canadian airline steward Gatan Dugas, who went from bathhouse to bathhouse infecting man after man, telling them, "I’ve got gay cancer. I’m going to die and so are you." His reasoning was that since somebody gave it to him, it was okay to give it to others. A clever publicist at St. Martin’s Press then revealed Dugas to the media as "The Man Who Brought AIDS to America." Or so the tabloid headlines screamed.

Actually, nowhere in his book does Shilts make any such claim for Dugas. Dugas was remarkable merely in that he apparently directly infected a large number of men, showing just how quickly anal intercourse could spread the disease. The problem with Shilts’s book is that it is not at all clear that Dugas knew he was infecting anybody. An earlier book, The Truth about AIDS, also made reference to Dugas (albeit not by name), and stated clearly that he did not know that "gay cancer" was infectious. The movie leaves open the question of whether Dugas continued to have sex even after being informed that what he had was probably infectious.

He looks nice enough, but he caused an epidemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.

But whatever sensationalism the movie eschews it more than makes up for in its damning of Reagan administration.

The link between Reagan and the epidemic is quickly established. His victory announcement in January 1981 is shown on a television which, when the camera pulls back, is revealed to be in the room of an AIDS patient. Later CDC Task Force Director James Curran tells another doctor to scratch the word "homosexual" from a report on AIDS, telling him that is necessary if they are to hope to get any funding with the new administration. A news report describing Reagan cuts in the health care budget is juxtaposed with a clip in which the president pledged to increase the defense budget. Fault that would at first glance clearly belongs to the homosexual community is actually merely a predictable outcrop of Reaganism.

Thus, Shilts’s book shows the coldbloodedness of the bathhouse owners, quoting one as saying. "We’re both in for the same thing. Money. We make money at one end when they come to the baths. You make money on the other end when they come here." The movie has a character played by singer Phil Collins utter the same line. But in a raucous debate over closing those dens, one person in the movie shouts, "This is another Reagan trick to shove us back in the closet!" Thus, the audience was made to realize, had we but a kinder, gentler, less homophobic president, the bathhouses would have shut their doors. We are also prepared to sympathize with the homosexual community leader who declares, "Banning homosexual from giving blood won’t protect the blood supply. What it will do is stigmatize them."


And there you have it. Reagan not only caused the AIDS epidemic by not proving research funding, he was also responsible for the continued usage of the bathhouses and the contamination of the blood supply.

Assigning blame to outside parties is hardly new. In the early part of the century Clarence Darrow propagated the idea that it was society at fault for criminals’ behavior, not the criminals themselves. Massacres by communist forces during and after the Vietnam war was blamed on U.S. bombing, which allegedly turned nice people into brutes eager to slaughter their brethren. Likewise the rhetoric of the AIDS establishment over most of the last decade, reflected nicely in And the Band Played On, is that even though AIDS is spread almost entirely through voluntary commission of a specific activity, it is the fault of the government. Anal sex doesn’t spread AIDS, Reaganism does. Why should you stop going to a bathhouse or sex bar or start using uncomfortable condoms when the real answer to your problems is in Washington?

It is now 13 years since the homosexual population became aware of AIDS and about that long since it began to realize it was probably sexually transmitted. The average time from infection to full-blown AIDS, prior to the new case definition which went into effect this year, was about 10 years. The new case definition shortens that somewhat. Thus, the great majority of AIDS cases being diagnosed in 1993 are in people who knew what they were risking and took the risk anyway.

Does that mean that they don’t deserve compassion, or that AIDS doesn’t deserve research or other funding? No, no more than we should cut off compassion or research funding for lung cancer even though probably 90 percent of its victims knew they were risking the disease by smoking. But you don’t find lung cancer or emphysema victims blaming other people for their illnesses.

To the very extent it demonized the Reagan administration, the film sanitized homosexual sexual practices. By the time the editors were through with the film, Jerry Falwell’s children could have eaten off it. For example, in the book Shilts describes Kraus’s lovers first experience in a bathhouse in which he believes he’s seeing a man with an amputated arm pressing his stump against another man’s rear, only to discover to his dismay that the man actually has his fist up the other man’s rectum all the way to the elbow. In the first cut of the movie, Kico was shown kissing Kraus full on the lips. By the final cut, this was reduced to a hug.

Indeed, Shilts hardly held back while describing the activities in bathhouses, describing how men would have sex through mere holes in the wall, how sticking one’s tongue in another’s anus was alternatively considered a political statement and a gourmet treat, how men would lie on their stomachs with their naked buttocks in the air and a can of Crisco at their side. But there were no cans of Crisco in this movie, no whips or chains. The entire bathhouse scene in the movie consists of one man in a towel putting his arm around another as they go through a door into another room. Even at that, the scene is preceded by Kraus admonishing the CDC researchers (and us) that, "I just don’t want you to come away from a tour of the bathhouses think that’s the way all men live." (This line apparently drew a big laugh when the movie was screened at before a homosexual audience in San Francisco.) Later Kraus informs us that, "The vast majority of gay men are in stable, monogamous relationships".

This bathhouse scene is then immediately followed by Selma Dritz, played by Lily Tomlin, admonishing a puzzled CDC researcher that if a Penthouse pet were under that other towel, he too would probably gladly walk into that room. That line never appeared in the book. Rather, the Selma Dritz of the book spoke prophetically of the bathhouses shortly before the first AIDS cases came to light: "Too much is being transmitted. We’ve got all these diseases going unchecked. There are so many opportunities for transmission that, when something new gets loose here, we’re going to have hell to pay."

You didn’t see anything like this in the film.

Also toned down to a point of sheer fiction was the depiction of a San Francisco homosexual parade. Gone were the intentionally sacrilegious depictions of Christ and Mary, gone were the leather men, gone were the Dykes on Bikes. Nothing but Wally and "the Beav types." Indeed, the film itself depicted a woman incredulous at the very idea that men even had sex with other men. Yet the only mention of specific homosexual sex acts was Dr. Mary Guinan, played by Glenn Headley, touting the AIDS-doesn’t-discriminate line of, "If it’s (the virus) in semen, it shouldn’t matter whether it’s in the anus or the vagina." As we now know, it turned out to matter a great deal.

One explanation you might hear for this sanitizing is that it reveals Hollywood homophobia. Yet, there is no more homophiliac industry in the world than Hollywood. Nobody has worked harder to portray AIDS as everybody’s disease worthy of vast amounts of medical funding than has the motion picture and TV industry. Nobody has worked harder at presenting homosexuals as nothing but masculine men and feminine women with a slight twist. It is true that some Hollywood producers would dearly love to show homosexuals kissing and some actors and actresses would love to come out of the closet, but all are inhibited by knowing that their overwhelming heterosexual audiences would be horrified. By cutting the kissing scene, HBO kept from losing a chunk out of its audience.

But far more than that, it helped to preserve the Gertrude Stein/Alice B. Toklas image that so many homosexuals have so desperately tried to maintain through the AIDS epidemic, in part by pretending that the disease does not discriminate against homosexual males and intravenous drug abusers.

Shilts’s book revealed an angry young man with a machine gun that swept 360 degrees.

Certainly Shilts’s book had plenty of vitriol for the Reagan administration, but then it was full of vitriol for everybody. Shilts was an angry young man with a machine gun that swept 360 degrees. The movie knocked out about half that range. Token shots fired over the heads of homosexual activists, bathhouses, and the San Francisco health department, allow the film’s full fury to be aimed at the president, Robert Gallo, and blood bank owners.

Thus, the movie has AIDS "poster boy" Bobbi Campbell making an impassioned plea at a public meeting, asking, "If the gay community doesn’t starting raising hell, do you think the Reagan administration is going to do a damned thing?" But the book tells us that after Campbell discovered that what he had was infectious he continued to go to the bathhouses, albeit with the dubious insistence that he didn’t engage in sex. Thus we find that in reality a man blaming the Reagan administration for the spread of a disease was actually spreading it himself. I have encountered a similar phenomenon, as when homosexual writer Michelangelo Signorile blasted me in the most vicious of terms as a provider of dangerous information even as the magazine he wrote those words for ran ads for male prostitutes.

Not that there aren’t other bad men in film besides Reagan. Robert Gallo, portrayed by Alan Alda, is unredeemably evil. Asked to investigate the cause of HIV he immediately turns it down, saying he’s just not interested. Only when his vanity is appealed to does he take up the search for the pathogen and when he fails to do so he steals all the credit from the French research team that truly made the discovery. Gallo has been described by many as arrogant and egotistical. He may have wrongly taken the credit for the French discovery, which if so would be a grossly immoral and illegal act. But Gallo is a dedicated researcher spurred on by the memory of his sister who did of cancer at a young age. His work in discovering the first human retrovirus set the stage for the French discovery of HIV. Moreover, the French were unable to keep the HIV cell line alive. That was the success of Gallo’s lab. There would have been no HIV antibody test introduced in 1985 but for Bob Gallo and many thousands of Americans and others around the world would have been infected through blood transfusion but for his work. Such a man does not deserve to be portrayed as Adolph Hitler in a lab coat.

Funny, he doesn’t look like Hitler.

But for all this, clearly the most disingenuous aspect of the movie are the teasers for HBO’s production assure us, was "the true story that didn’t have to happen." The book made no such claims and the claim is nonsense.

Yes, in retrospect the epidemic got far less attention and funding early on than it should have gotten. And yes, part of this may have been that it was predominantly a disease of those who, at that time, had little political clout and in general received little sympathy. But a far better explanation lies in the nature of the beast. With most diseases, the number of cases you see approximates the number of victims. In the early years of the epidemic nobody had any idea that for every case identified there were thousands waiting to incubate. Had someone informed President Reagan not that there were a few hundred people suffering a sometimes terminal illness but that there were hundreds of thousands suffering an almost always fatal answer, his administration’s response may have been quite different.

Further, even in 1993 there is nothing even approaching a cure for the disease despite massive AIDS research funding for the past half decade, no research funding early on could have made much of a difference. All the king’s money could not bring back those unfortunate hundreds of thousands. What is true is that many persons have been infected in the time since the modes of AIDS transmission were established. Since the disease is spread through very specific behaviors, its spread should be reducible through programs aimed at reducing those behaviors. Yet, since 1987 the federal government has joined with the organized homosexual groups and an assortment of other strange bedfellows including condom manufacturers, population control groups, and some Christian groups, to target AIDS messages at that part of the population least at risk of getting the disease — middle-class heterosexuals, children, women, and persons in rural areas.

A message box at the end of the movie continued to propagate this myth. (Please refer to the statistical sidebar Meanwhile, those who truly are at high risk continue to become infected. The bathhouses that Shilts inveighed against have reopened their doors and infection rates among young homosexuals are going up. Why? As Shilts himself has often said: politics. Truly the band does play on.

In death, Shilts became just another tool for blaming the government for the AIDS epidemic.

It was particularly sad for me to see Randy Shilts’s name attached to such foolishness. Back in 1987, when I first began researching the real risk of AIDS to heterosexuals, the second person I talked to was Shilts. (The first, who referred me to him, was the editor of this magazine, David Horowitz.) Shilts, at that time putting the final touches on And the Band Played On, told me that he had already written material for his newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, to the effect that the alleged heterosexual breakout was nonsense. That gave me the confidence that my thesis was correct and launched my strange odyssey that would eventually bring me into contact with many of the characters in Shilts’s book and the movie. On numerous occasions, when homosexual activists were accusing me of every form of mendacity, Shilts surprised the hosts of television shows we appeared on by bravely declaring that I was right. The importance of this cannot be understated since whole shows built around my book nonetheless usually gave Shilts, as the celebrity, far more speaking time than I got.

Our last such appearance, coincidentally, was with the hero of the movie, Dr. Donald Francis. Shilts’s courage was especially brought home when it was revealed that he had AIDS last year, and that he had long known he had been infected. How easy it would have been for him to lie along with the rest about the heterosexual epidemic in the hopes of pumping up research funds. But his integrity was too much for that. To see this movie as an important part of his testament is painful indeed.