Join 3,441 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


It was 10 Years Ago Today. . .
February 17, 2004 7:32 AM   Subscribe

The San Francisco Chronical has an observance on the 10th anniversary of the death of Randy Shilts. His second book, And the Band Played On opened my eyes to the AIDS epidemic, as I am sure it did to a lot of straight people. I was amazed to see him pilloried in the gay press as being a traitor to his "kind." My understanding is that this disfavor arose from his assertion that aspects of the hard-won sexual freedom enjoyed by many gay men were also killing them. Anyone want to weigh in on this?
posted by Danf (25 comments total)

 
Absolutely. At the risk of starting a firestorm I will say that, even to this day, the insinuation that there is any remote chance that HIV/AIDS has a personal responsibilty component is viewed as homophobic. If every person who engages in high risk behavior were to take the steps necessary to change that behavior HIV/AIDS would be eliminated. Period.
posted by waltb555 at 7:42 AM on February 17, 2004


If every person who engages in high risk behavior were to take the steps necessary to change that behavior HIV/AIDS would be eliminated. Period.

My agreement with that statement would depend on how you defined "high-risk behavior," walt. If you mean careless IV drug use, patronizing street prostitutes, and constant anonymous casual sex (especially without protection) then you have a point. If you mean mere homosexuality, than your merely being a bigot.
posted by jonmc at 7:49 AM on February 17, 2004


Anyone want to weigh in on this?

The well lubed homosexual sex circuit is dangerous and irresponsible. Although it looks like Freddy Mercury had one great time.
posted by the fire you left me at 8:01 AM on February 17, 2004


If I recall correctly, Shilts thought that clamping down on anonymous sex (particularly the bath-house culture) wasn't necessarily a bad idea at the time, but such attempts were politicized and misconstrued as direct attacks against the gay community. This was exacerbated by opportunists who did indeed take advantage of the situation to vent their hostility. Unfortunately, they drowned out many reasonable voices in the process. I'm pretty sure Shilts was attacked for advocating several comonsense responses along these lines. Mostly by well intentioned people who felt he was playing into the hands of those painting it as a "gay plague".
posted by RavinDave at 8:14 AM on February 17, 2004


- The spread of AIDS in africa being the empirical evidence of a predominantly homosexual dissemination of the disease.
posted by johnnyboy at 8:24 AM on February 17, 2004


On preview, jonmc is on the money, so I will delete my comment.
posted by subgenius at 8:38 AM on February 17, 2004


Those were different times. Back then, the vast majority of people with AIDS were gay, and transmission by IV or heterosexual sex was a lot rarer. So almost anything you said about AIDS was automatically a statement about gays. The Reagan Administration was very explicit about blaming the gay community for the disease (those of you who are scared by Bush's pandering to the religious right should try to imagine how much worse things were back then). And gays had been able to meet in bars without fear of a violent police raid for only a few years.

So it's normal that gays reacted badly to Shilts' ideas. Even if Shilts was right, it took a lot of deaths before the gay community could feel more threatened by AIDS itself than by the people who wanted to use AIDS as an excuse to attack gays.
posted by fuzz at 8:58 AM on February 17, 2004


The well lubed homosexual sex circuit is dangerous and irresponsible.

homosexual sex circuit? So when straight people do it, it's spring break, but when gay people do it, it's a sex circuit? Are you part of this circuit? Can you make claims to how much unsafe behavior is taking place compared to safer behaviors?
posted by archimago at 9:41 AM on February 17, 2004



jonmc: High risk behavior includes all the things you mentioned and is of course not exclusively related to homosexual behavior. Heterosexuals are getting the disease much more frequently any other group these days when you look at the global picture.

fuzz: That's where I was trying to go but you got there more clearly.
posted by waltb555 at 10:18 AM on February 17, 2004


So when straight people do it, it's spring break, but when gay people do it, it's a sex circuit?

No, archimago, when straight people fuck everything with a pulse, it's idiotic and wrong as well.
posted by jonmc at 10:23 AM on February 17, 2004


Shilts did enormous good, but the biggest problem people had was that he was an absolutist about bathhouses and things...it was as if he never heard of condoms at all. By around 83-4, everyone knew to wear rubbers, and that was too late--both because many people had already been infected and because he helped shut down the already limited variety of spaces that us gay men used to have as playgrounds. It was the beginning of this big sex-positive (not hiv-positive) and sex-negative split and he fell on the anti-sex side. Some say that the people who shut down bathhouses which could have been used for education (as they are now, and have been for a long time) might actually be responsible for driving gay sex further underground than it already was, and making it less safe.
posted by amberglow at 10:28 AM on February 17, 2004


Amberglow...from reading And the Band Played On, it appears to me that people may have known to wear a condom that early but very very very few gay men were doing it-especially not the bathouse attendees. Additionally, they TRIED to use the bathhouses for education (posting posters and pamphlets about safe sex,) but when they closed the bathouses-when everyone knew what to do to avoid AIDS, they were still full of men barebacking and doing other very unsafe sexual things.

I think that people, heterosexual or homosexual or whatever, bear the responsibility for their actions. If you have unprotected sex and it was you who decided to go forth unprotected (not raped or anything like that) then you bear the responsibility if you get herpes, pregnant, AIDS, whatever. I'm not saying you "deserve" it, but that it is your responsibility because you decided not to be responsible. I think that is Randy's point and the point of a lot of other gay men who were trying to save the lives of their friends, lovers, and society by pointing it out back in the early days of the AIDS crisis.
posted by aacheson at 11:36 AM on February 17, 2004


"when straight people fuck everything with a pulse, it's idiotic and wrong as well."

yeah, but it gives you very high tv ratings
posted by matteo at 12:07 PM on February 17, 2004


Just for the record, matteo, I loathe SITC and all it stands for. And it's not like Queer As Folk is having a hard time in the ratings department, either.
posted by jonmc at 12:15 PM on February 17, 2004


That was my point, jonmc. Thanks. I'd still like TFYLM to address it though.
posted by archimago at 12:32 PM on February 17, 2004


homosexual sex circuit? So when straight people do it, it's spring break, but when gay people do it, it's a sex circuit? Are you part of this circuit? Can you make claims to how much unsafe behavior is taking place compared to safer behaviors?

I'm guessing the reference to "homosexual sex circuit" is actually a reference to, well, you know gay circuit parties.

The HIV/AIDS risk of attending these parties is of course a function of unprotected sex, which has been shown to be positively correlated with high rates of drug use (1, 2). I think this link is pretty strong. Not saying you wouldn't find a correlation between spring break binge drinking and unprotected sex, but I'd argue that the difference in drugs (more stimulants v depressants) would give circuit parties an edge in the competition for establishing a risky sexual environment.
posted by donovan at 12:43 PM on February 17, 2004


donovan, my reaction was a bit knee-jerk. I know about circuit parties and I know they are places where gay men engage in unsafe sex. It's still a double standard. MTV makes a movie about Spring Break and circuit parties are under medical study. Do you have links to show that Spring Break revelers don't indulge in K, coke, ecstacy and GHB at the same rates?
posted by archimago at 1:06 PM on February 17, 2004


I think that people, heterosexual or homosexual or whatever, bear the responsibility for their actions. If you have unprotected sex and it was you who decided to go forth unprotected (not raped or anything like that) then you bear the responsibility if you get herpes, pregnant, AIDS, whatever. I'm not saying you "deserve" it, but that it is your responsibility because you decided not to be responsible. I think that is Randy's point and the point of a lot of other gay men who were trying to save the lives of their friends, lovers, and society by pointing it out back in the early days of the AIDS crisis.
You can't call people responsible for their own actions on one hand, and then treat them like children on the other...That's the whole point--and why people were unhappy with the closing of bathhouses and other spaces where men had sex. I'm here and negative because i listened to what GMHC and educators said about wearing a condom--many of us are. That doesn't mean many didn't listen (and continue not to), but it means that bathhouse education was working. Furthermore, just closing places down has not stopped the spread of aids or any other std...history has proven them wrong--people will always find ways to have sex with each other--straight and gay. What was once a captive and ideal audience for aids education (i remember hot guys handing out condoms wearing just towels, for example) was eliminated because of the paternalistic actions of Shilts who thought he knew better (while contracting it himself.)
posted by amberglow at 1:45 PM on February 17, 2004


I think it's difficult for us now - I was 21 the summer the "odd pnuemonia affecting gay men" article appeared in the NY Times - to remember that "out-n-proud gay liberation" was a just over a decade old when the AIDS epidemic was starting to take hold. I still recall reacting with anger and indignation on hearing Shilts and his ilk calling for the closing of bathhouses merely as a potential preventative - and remember, it wasn't just bathhouses, the message was specifically "anti-sex" and it was a shot to the heart of a sub-population that had for only a short time felt in control of their own lives. It's all well and good to be young (or, younger) now and to see with perfect 20/20 hindsight what the "right thing to do" was, but back then there wasn't obvious that closing bathhouses was going to have any effect whatosever.

I'm not saying that the Randy Shilts's (and worse, the Larry "The World Owes Me A Liver and I'll Whine To the Newspapers Every Chance I Get Until I Get One!" Kramer's) (shudder!) were wrong; their message was probably right, it's just their methods and their delivery that made them completely unacceptable and even intolerable in the minds of many, many urban gay men.
posted by JollyWanker at 2:17 PM on February 17, 2004


what jolly said--we're almost the same age, and it really was anti-sex...maybe a better memorial to Shilts is to do more outreach to today's 20-year-olds to get them to be safer (they think aids is a totally managable disease, like an ulcer or something).
posted by amberglow at 3:27 PM on February 17, 2004


Do you have links to show that Spring Break revelers don't indulge in K, coke, ecstacy and GHB at the same rates?

Nope. When I left academe I lost access to medline. Speaking as someone who's worked in public health and in public policy studies (ranging from street outreach HIV prevention among IDUs, to AIDS hospice, to youth risk behavior prevention) your point is well taken. I know there have been studies of binge drinking/unprotected sex among college students and the relationship between the two is obvious.

The differences between gay circuit parties and (presumably) het spring break is interesting. I'd guess that HIV is a bigger risk at circuit parties, but then nobody would make the case that spring break has a liberatory cast to it. This has been the rub with HIV prevention in the gay community as prevention efforts that have targeted group behavior (bathhouses, parties, etc) have been hard to divorce from targeting gays (as a group) as opposed to "individuals with health risk behaviors."

And now for a shameless self link that's on topic.
posted by donovan at 3:30 PM on February 17, 2004


i just ordered one, donovan

and as for circuit parties, the rule as far as i know is to assume that everyone there is positive, and act accordingly (it's really a general rule for all situations where you may meet someone)
posted by amberglow at 3:37 PM on February 17, 2004


amberglow, why thanks for the vote of confidence (I excitedly wait to watch my Amazon rank rocket from 742,891 to at least 487,623). I'm proud of the book and hope it's not wonkier than you're expecting.
posted by donovan at 4:34 PM on February 17, 2004


don't worry--i'll resell or trade it if it sucks ; >
posted by amberglow at 4:35 PM on February 17, 2004


Shilts was a great journalist. All he did was describe what he saw in the bathhouses -- not to mention the labs, where the scientists competed for "glory" while young men died. I don't think he was anti sex. He was anti dehumanizing sex, and thought getting buttfucked without a condom by dozens of strangers in a single night was dehumanizing and self hating.
It is a defensible position. And most likely most of the people he wrote about in those sections of his book are long dead, and prematurely so. So he was right, too. The environment now is different, but his work showed people the truth of what had to be done to educate people about safe sex. Quiet whispers about protection were not going to cut it in the environment of that day. Shilts's unvarnished truth scared the shit out of a lot of people and saved millions of lives, probably including mine.
Conduct Unbecoming is also a great book.
posted by Slagman at 10:12 PM on February 17, 2004


« Older The history of the BBC...  |  muse cube.... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments